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The Nazi Olympics: African American Athletes


Narrator: In the 800-meter event, Uncle Sam’s hope is John Woodruff, overtaking Phil Edwards of Canada, who is running his heart out trying to match the withering pace of the husky Negro heavyweight who is running him into the ground.

John Woodruff: It was very definitely a special feeling in winning the gold medal and being a black man. Here I was doing something, and this particular event had not been won by an American in 24 years. So I was very happy for myself as an individual, for my race, and for my country.

Dr. David Wiggins: In the latter stages of the nineteenth century, there were a large number of African-American athletes who established not just a national reputation but an international reputation for their athletic performances. Athletes such as Marshall “Major” Taylor, one of the great bicyclists in American history; Isaac Murphy, the first jockey ever to win three Kentucky Derbies; Moses “Fleetwood” Walker, who was the first African-American ever to play major league baseball when he signed with the Toledo Mud Hens in the mid-1880s. And what happens around the turn of the century, particularly by the last decade of the nineteenth century, because of a variety of different factors, including the Jim Crow laws and the Black Codes, the most famous being the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, you begin to have segregation. You saw African-American athletes being eliminated from predominately white organized sport around the turn of the century.

Dr. Clayborne Carson: This was still an era of segregation, but one of the things that had changed before the 1936 Olympics was the urbanization of African-Americans, moving to especially the urban North. They were able to go to high schools where there were sports teams, which wasn’t available in the schools in the South, which barely had any facilities. That put them in a position where they could participate in sports, particularly in the individual sports, like boxing or track and field events. You had the legacy of Jack Johnson, the person who did succeed in boxing and became world champion, but didn’t conform to the role that was assigned to black Americans. He was attacked, and ultimately his prestige and his money were taken away. That served as a lesson for subsequent generations of black athletes: that you could have power in the society to a certain degree, but you have to be very careful how you exercise it.

Jeremy Schaap: You know, the fact of the matter was that blacks were being kept out of baseball, they were being kept out of football, and although I’m not sure how many people really believed this, one of the arguments was that, well, they might be faster, they might be stronger, but they don’t play the game smart. You know, all these ridiculous lies. But they were widely accepted. In track and field, unlike in team sports, you could measure performance empirically. Jesse Owens is running a 9.9 100 yards, he’s just faster than any white man on the planet, and you can’t argue against that and it would be foolish to try to argue it. On May 25, 1935, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the Big Ten track meet, he sets world records in four events in the space of less than an hour. This is all with an injury—he’d suffered a back injury horsing around with some of his fraternity brothers the week before—and all of a sudden he is America’s greatest hope for the Berlin Olympics.

Carson: Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe were definitely heroes in the black community. Even though they might have limitations in terms of training, and resources, and all of these sorts of things, once they were able to compete they were able to do it and they were able to do it well. There was much more ambivalence in the black community over whether to participate or not in the 1936 Olympics. Americans were painting the Nazis as super-racists. We had our own experience with racism at home and it was hard to imagine something worse than Jim Crow in the South. That notion of American democracy versus Nazism was blurred a bit for African-Americans. I think that in the end it came down to there was going to be U.S. participation in the Olympics and there were some talented black athletes who wanted to go. Even if the black press had been totally opposed to going they wouldn’t have been able to influence the decision anyway. The individual athletes made their own decisions and they wanted to go.


John Woodruff: When we went to the Olympics, we weren’t interested in politics. We were only interested in going to Germany, participating in our events, and trying to win as many gold medals as we could win, see, and come home. That was our interest. I made the team when I was 20 and before I got to Berlin, Germany, I had a birthday and I was 21. So we were young. All of us were young. The opening ceremonies were all these Olympic athletes representing all these various nations marching in. We came in with our white trousers, blue jackets, and straw hats with the red, white, and blue band. And of course right after they march in and the Games are declared open, they release all these pigeons, and they all fly. And that’s the opening of the Games.

Announcer: And the Games are on. Here in the semifinal heat of the 100-meter dash Movietone’s camera catches the blinding speed of Jesse Owens cracking the world record in the incredible time of ten and two-tenth seconds.

Marty Glickman: The myth of Nazi Aryan supremacy was smashed to smithereens by the great non-Aryan athletes. Black athletes won the 100, the 200, the 400, the 800, the long jump, the high jump. It certain proved that this Aryan business of supremacy was ridiculous. These were non-Aryans winning the most important events.

Schaap: Seeing Jesse Owens, it was almost impossible not to cheer for him, because what you were witnessing was as close to perfection as you or anyone else would ever see. If Jesse Owens had gone to the Games of the 11th Olympiad in 1936 in Berlin and had just won his 4 gold medals in those four events, the 100 meter, the 200 meters, the 4x100 meter relay and the broad jump, it would have been one of the most spectacular achievements in the history of sports and certainly in the history of the Olympic Games. To have done so as an African-American, in Hitler’s capital, at a time when the Third Reich was ascendant, makes what he did, I think, arguably the most impressive feat in the history of sports. The Nazis weren’t stupid. People labor under this misimpression that the African-Americans, the eight of them on the U.S. Olympic track and field team, were winning, that that was somehow this incredible insult to the Third Reich. No one was surprised when John Woodruff and Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe and Cornelius Johnson and Dave Albritton and Archie Williams and Jimmy LuValle ended up dominating the competition. They had been running times and jumping distances that could have convinced even a layman of their superiority. That was apparent to everyone.


Woodruff: You’re up on the stand, and they’re playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for all the Americans. Then they had young girls that came over and the girls presented the medal. It kind of does something to you. We came to New York and they had a big parade for us. But I can’t recall, after winning the Olympics, that it opened any particular doors. Now I’m sure many of the white Olympians were made offers, very fine offers, but I can’t recall any of the black Olympians making any great offers. Now Jesse did pretty well, he got in public relations work, but he never had any really big jobs, you know. He ran against racehorses, you may have heard of him running against a racehorse, he did a number of things in order to try and make a living for his family. When I came back to the University of Pittsburgh, they had the university hall of fame. They made the hall of fame but I didn’t make it, in spite of the gold medal that I’d won and bringing the school international recognition. So that let me know just what the situation was. Things hadn’t changed.


Carson: It’s a gradual change; it’s not something that has completely changed even now. But I think the importance of the 1936 Olympics is that it was the starting point for a gradual process of bringing African-Americans closer to the American mainstream. All the way through the 30s, and 40s, and 50s, and into the 60s when you always saw these news articles about the first black person to do this or that. It was a source of pride and it was a source of hope because there was always going to be the second, and the third, and the fourth, and those people would have a much easier time because the first had opened the door.

Jesse Owens: The competition was grand and we’re very glad to have come out on top. Thank you very kindly.

In this video, athlete John Woodruff, professor David Wiggins, professor Clayborne Carson, and author Jeremy Schaap reflect on the relevance of the achievements of African American athletes at the 1936 Olympics.