Friday 22 September 2017

Olympic procession has left many victims in its wake

Tommy Conlon

Jesse Owens was more than happy with his three gold medals at the Berlin Olympics -- his work was done, or so he thought.

But he and Ralph Metcalfe were also belatedly selected for the American 4x100m relay team.

Owens had become a global star at the Games. He and Metcalfe had finished first and second in the 100m final. It made headlines around the world when Adolf Hitler refused to meet Owens. "Do you really think," he said, "that I will allow myself to be photographed shaking hands with a Negro?"

This was on the second day of the Games. On his way to the opening ceremony two days earlier, Hitler had swept through the streets of Berlin at the head of a vast motorcade. The long avenues were draped with giant red banners, each emblazoned with the swastika logo. The dictator, flanked by his ministers and generals, proceeded in a phalanx down the steps of the magnificent new Olympic arena. It was an awesome display of power, spectacle and political theatre. The crowds were screaming for Hitler, in a state of delirium.

Then the Olympic torch-bearer entered the stadium to a tremendous ovation. He climbed the steps and lit the symbolic eternal flame. It has since become a time-honoured ritual but it began at the 1936 Games.

The Nazis invented the concept of the torch relay from Olympia in Greece to the host city. The same torch relay which, 76 years later, passed through Dublin last week.

The cult of the Olympics, with its overblown rhetoric, monumental self-importance and tinpot politics, has long been tinged with a fascistic streak. It was a perfect platform for masters of propaganda like the Nazi party.

A new documentary on the life of Jesse Owens, made for the American channel PBS and broadcast in Britain and Ireland last Wednesday night, revisited the drama of the Berlin Games. The vintage black-and-white footage was fascinating to behold.

A story told by Louis Zamperini would have delighted Charlie Chaplin. Now 94, Zamperini was a member of the 1936 USA Olympic team. They were standing on the infield of the arena during the opening ceremony. At one stage 25,000 pigeons were released. "And then they shot a cannon and (it) scared the poop out of the pigeons." Literally scared the poop out of them. "And we had straw hats and you could hear the pitter-patter on our hats. I mean it was a mass of droppings and it was so funny." One would like to think they didn't miss Hitler either.

Despite their adored leader's public snub of Owens, the German crowds swooned over the athlete anyway as he won again in the long jump and 200m. He was too good to hate. Contemporary film recordings have preserved his greatness. Owens was technically immaculate, his head and torso perfectly still as he sprinted down the track. Then there was the smoothness of his running, the sheer ease of his power and speed. In person he was by all accounts charming and amiable. "He was just a really graceful piece of a guy," said Zamperini.

Owens had learned young how to navigate the institutionalised racism of American society. At Ohio State University, he was appointed captain of the track team, the first African-American to captain a college track team. But he was not allowed live in the men's dorm on campus.

He didn't rock the boat. He relied on his superlative talent for protection. But as the Berlin Games approached a movement to boycott them was growing in America. In 1935, the Nazi government had passed the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship. Owens supported calls for the boycott in a public statement.

The president of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, stood his ground. Brundage was a creep, an anti-Semite and a bully. He was an admirer of Hitler's nation-building exploits. He was a perfect candidate to become president of the International Olympic Committee, a position he held for 20 years.

Brundage was widely suspected of rigging the 4x100m team in Berlin. The two athletes dropped for Owens and Metcalfe were Jewish. One of them, Marty Glickman, remained adamant in later years that a political decision had been taken to appease Hitler.

Metcalfe was also African-American. "The Nazis hated

blacks too," historian Rafael Medoff explained in the documentary, "but the Jews were their primary targets and so, if given the choice, they preferred to have blacks competing in the race rather than Jews."

Zamperini recounted that Owens did not want to replace his team-mates. "(He) refused to do it. He fought 'em back. And they said -- they pointed their finger in his face and said: 'You'll do as you're told'. (It) was a horrible thing that happened."

Owens won his fourth gold medal and returned to a ticker tape reception in New York. Several hotels in New York that night however refused entry to Owens and his wife. Brundage then stripped him of his amateur status. He was barred from competing in any sanctioned athletic events in America and reduced to running against racehorses for money.

He spent the next 20 years struggling to earn a living; he was declared bankrupt. In the mid-1950s, he came in from the cold. President Eisenhower named him a goodwill ambassador. Some corporate endorsements came his way.

Owens died in 1980 aged 66. Louis Zamperini believes he died of a broken heart.

thecouch@independent.ie

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