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As a track and field fan I was disappointed
on October 29, 2014
As a fan of track and field fan I was disappointed that the film's producer did not focus more on Owens's achievements on the track. Owens is famous because he was a phenomenal athlete. I wanted the film to spend more time on his track career. However, the assembled experts seemed a little clueless about his track exploits and got too many facts wrong. It was great to see so much new film of Owens in his prime. He was such a graceful runner. For me, the documentary focused too much on race and politics.
The documentary repeated stories that have become part of the Owens myth. Historian Margaret MacMillan was employed to tell us that the Nazis were upset because Owens beat their athletes in Berlin. Germany topped the medal table in 1936 and the Nazis achieved the PR victory they wanted. They won 89 medals compared to 56 for the US, which finished second. My wife's uncle attended the games in Berlin and told me that Owens was treated like a celebrity by the Germans. Luz Long, the German champion gave Owens coaching advice to help him qualify for the long jump final. Their friendship is recorded in Leni Riefenstahl's documentary Olympia. Long became a soldier and was killed in action in 1943.
MacMillan repeats the story that Hitler snubbed Owens. Owens claimed after the games that "Hitler didn't snub me - it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram." The true story is that Hitler congratulated German athletes on the first day of the 1936 Olympics, only to be informed by IOC officials that he should congratulate all athletes or none, in order to show neutrality as the presiding head of state. Hitler opted to congratulate no-one, and was not even in the stadium when Jesse Owens was securing his medals. President Franklin D. Roosevelt never publicly acknowledged Owens' achievements or send a letter of congratulation. There was a ticker-tape parade in New York in his honor, but ironically to attend the reception, as an African-American, Owens had to use the back elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where it was held. The front one was reserved for white people. The trouble with depicting the Germans as racists is that the US also practiced segregation at the time.
The film mentions that the top American Olympic official, Avery Brundage, was pro-Nazi. The reality was that a lot of leading Americans were pro-Nazi in the 1930s, including Charles Lindberg, Henry Ford, and George Marshall. I recently read a book by Lynne Olson which showed that the country was divided about who to support, in the years leading up to WW2. She revealed that Germany had a lot of American allies including the top US military commanders. This has all been airbrushed from history.
After the games Brundage removed Owens' amateur status. Owens had left a European fund-raising tour early and returned to the US. The film showed that Owens had more to fear from his fellow Americans than the Germans. Owens may have been representing freedom and democracy, but the film mentions that he struggled to find a hotel room in New York after he returned from Berlin. Unlike later generations of African-Americans Owens was unable to make money out of his fame. He received no Hollywood offers and no endorsement contracts. Three years after his victories in Berlin, a failed business deal forced Owens to declare bankruptcy.
This is a sad story and a cautionary tale. I would preferred to have watched a film that celebrated Owens's genius rather than revisit the unfortunate racism of the past.