The 1936 Summer Olympics was rife with political and racial tension. The Nazi Propaganda Machine was in full swing and racial profiling and societal demarcation reached an all-time high. The Olympics was Hitler’s chance to further promote his ideological belief of racial supremacy. Some nations debated boycotting, with Spain and the Soviet Union going through with a full boycott. American Jewish organizations began boycotting German goods in protest. But in contrast to all such measures, the 1936 Summer Olympics witnessed the largest number of participating nations of any Olympics up to that point.
Then came Jesse Owens. On December 4, 1935, NAACP( National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Secretary Walter White wrote a letter to Jesse Owens trying to dissuade him from taking part in the Olympics on the grounds that an African-American could not help promote a racist regime after what his community had suffered at the hands of white supremacists in his own country. Still, Owens arrived in Germany to participate amidst much fanfare. He went on to win four gold medals. Owens’s success at the games represented an unpleasant consternation for Adolf Hitler, who was using the games to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. He and the other government officials had high hopes that German athletes would dominate the games with victories.
On the first day of competition, 1 August 1936, Hitler shook hands with the German victors and then left the stadium. Olympic committee officials insisted Hitler greet every medalist or none at all. Hitler opted for the latter and skipped all further medal presentations. Even after emerging victorious, the then American President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not invite Jesse Owens to the White House. This reflected the sad reality where one was not respected in one’s own country due to racism.
Owens responded to these claims at the time:
Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters (race began at 5:45 pm). But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the ‘man of the hour’ in another country.
This statement in itself shows how great a sportsman he was.
Another infamous incident is the Black Power salute. During the 1968 Olympics, black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalists in the men’s 200-meter race, took their places on the podium wearing black socks without shoes and civil rights badges, lowered their heads and each defiantly raised a black-gloved fist as the American national anthem was played, in solidarity with the Black Freedom Movement in the United States. Although the attempt was to make a political statement, some people criticized the move based on the mindset that country-specific problems should not be highlighted on the international stage. As a response, Smith, and Carlos were immediately suspended from the national team and banned from the Olympic village.
As we can see, time and time again, the Olympics has been used as a podium to highlight and challenge issues related to racism throughout the world. Racism persists even today as exemplified by the Gabby Douglas- Simone Biles mixup, Rafaela-Maranhao racist tweets and so on. One can only hope that the current situation improves and the time comes when one’s race is not being considered over their talent and hard work.
By Aditya Ramachandran