It’s one of the most treasured stories in the history of sports in America. And rightly so.
Jesse Owens, the sharecropper’s son, outshines all other track and field performers in the 1936 Olympic games. He takes home four gold medals, vanquishes all the evil competitors from Nazi Germany and the allegedly superior Aryan race. He so embarrasses the evil host, Adolf Hitler, that the dictator and soon-to-be mass murderer flees from his trackside throne so that he will not have to congratulate the dark-skinned American. The people of Germany share their Führer’s disdain and are full-throated in their jeers and condemnation of the man who defeats their beloved favorite, Lutz Long. Owens returns home to the welcoming arms of a grateful nation that adopts him as its new hero.
There’s truth to that story. But it’s not the whole truth, not the whole story. Jesse Owens deserves his niche in America’s athletic pantheon. He was the best trackman of his time, and he did win those four golds. Hitler did not greet him personally, as he had many other winners. But it didn’t happen in quite the way it’s been passed down. The history has been re-written, or at least has been highly selective, to airbrush out the parts that may be embarrassing to certain people of high official stature.
“Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936” by David Clay Large, is a full chronicle of the 1936 Olympics – its planning, execution, and aftermath. The book is excellent, granularly detailed history of an event that was one of the most masterful exercises in propaganda that the world has ever seen. The 1936 Olympics was an evil regime at its deceitful best.
I’ll get to Jesse Owens in a subsequent blog post. He deserves one of his own. But let’s start out by saying that he never should have been there in Berlin. Nor should have any other American athlete been there. Had the American Olympic Committee done the right thing and joined in a boycott of the games, other democracies like France and Britain would probably have gone along with it.
The absence of those nations and possibly others would have deprived Hitler of his propaganda triumph. And maybe – just maybe, could be wishful thinking – it would have stemmed the tidal wave of his popular support in Germany, shined a light on his horrific treatment of Jewish people, and crimped his ability to launch his war.
That boycott almost happened. For at least two years, officials like U.S. ambassador to Germany William Dodd and chief consul George Messersmith had been reporting on Germany’s disgraceful treatment of Jews. The president, Franklin Roosevelt, hid in the White House and never said a thing, pro or con the boycott or about the Nazi regime. Support for staying out of the 1936 Olympics kept building in America and elsewhere as the games approached and as more and more stories about Nazi oppression of Jews leaked out of Germany.
Had anybody of high stature – the president of the United States, the pope – used his bully pulpit to tell the unvarnished truth rather than seeking to placate Hitler, history may have been very different. But neither FDR nor Pius XII did the right thing, either about the 1936 Olympics or later on about Germany’s horrible mistreatment of the Jews.
In the battle over the boycott, the bad people won out in the climactic 1935 meeting of the Amateur Athletic Union in New York. Facing off were AAU president Jeremiah Mahoney, a supporter of the boycott, and the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, construction mogul Avery Brundage. The reptilian Brundage played the anti-Semitic card. He stated that only five percent of Americans were Jewish, and less than one percent of the athletes were Jewish, but that there was a larger percentage of Jews than that who were present at the meeting, and therefore “responsibility for actions of this kind, right or wrong, would be charged to the Jews.”
Brundage’s supporters in the AAU gave him a victory of 58.25 to 55.75 against a resolution calling for an investigation of conditions in Germany. To compound the disgrace, Brundage’s supporters made him the new AAU president and kicked Mahoney out. That effectively made Brundage the king of amateur athletics in America.
The corruption, discrimination, and paybacks didn’t stop there. A Swedish buddy of Brundage’s on the International Olympic Committee, Sigfrid Edstrøm, cabled his congratulations for “outmaneuvering the dirty Jews and politicians” and added that he hoped to see Brundage that summer as a colleague on the IOC.
That happened too. Brundage was elevated to the International Olympic Committee in the summer of 1936. He replaced another American of integrity and a profile in courage, Ernest Lee Jahncke. One of three American members of the International Olympic Committee, Jahncke is the only person ever to be kicked off the IOC. He courageously refuse to acquiesce to OIC president Count Henri de Baillet-Latour’s plea to “convince your people that the IOC has upheld the rights of everyone concerned and that the the unanimous decision [to stage the games in Berlin] was the only wise one.”
Jahncke, who had been assistant Secretary of the Navy under Herbert Hoover, would have none of it. An American of German descent, he was dismayed at what Hitler had done to his former country. He knew all about the Nuremberg Laws and that Germany was discriminating against its Jewish athletes.
Jahncke’s letters to Baillet-Latour said, in effect, don’t give me this bull about the Olympic ideals of founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin, because “precisely [his – de Coubertin’s] devotion to this idea has caused me to do just the opposite of what you so confidently ask of me. ..[I will] do all I can to persuade my fellow Americans that they ought not to take part in the Games if they are held in Nazi Germany” and that the Nazis “are continuing to violate every requirement of fair play in the conduct of sport” and that no foreign nation could participate in the Nazi games “without at least acquiescing in the contempt of the Nazis for fair play and their sordid exploitation of the Games.”
Strong stuff. And the right stuff. But it’s the kind of stuff that gets you fired. That’s what happened to Jahncke. The IOC’s 35th Congress came in July of 1936. Rudolf Hess welcomed the delegates on behalf of the Führer. Baillet-Latour complimented himself for “keeping religion and politics out of the games.” And the IOC unanimously approved a motion that Ernest Lee Jahncke, the only American IOC member who criticized the Nazi games, be summarily expelled.
For his unwavering advocacy of all things Nazi, Brundage received a contract to build a new German embassy in Washington. At least that didn’t happen. The war prevented it.
A very small measure of justice towards Brundage cropped up recently. The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco had been prominently displaying a bust of Brundage; most of his art collection is at that museum. In June 2020, the museum removed the bust and placed it in storage. His personal history of antisemitism, racism, and sexism prompted the move.
As an article in The Nation stated, “The removal of Brundage’s bust is long overdue. His toxic concoction of -isms and his perma-frown belong in the dustbin of history.”
While I’m not fond of today’s “Cancel Culture,” I can’t disagree with that. But I wish also to raise a glass in memory of Jeremiah Mahoney and Ernest Lee Jahncke, great Americans both, who paid a heavy and undeserved price for their courage. Would that we had more people like them.
Coming soon: The full story of Jesse Owens and America’s other black Olympians of 1936.
Tom Burke is a veteran sports writer. He was Eastern College Hockey’s first national correspondent, wrote for the Hockey News for eighteen years and was a New York Sunday Times college hockey contributor for seven years. He has served on the Hobey Baker Award Selection Committee, and he has been the arena voice of BC hockey for twenty-seven years and the stadium voice of BC football for thirty-nine years.