Everything You Think You Know About Jesse Owens at Hitler's 1936 Nazi Olympics Is Wrong
It is an accident of history that we can still watch and appreciate Owens's famous race because of a Nazi sympathizer.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
This article was originally published on VICE Sports U.S.
80 years ago this week, Jesse Owens won his third individual gold medal at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. You probably learned the story's basic outlines in school: Owens, a black American from Cleveland, went to Nazi Germany and proved the racists wrong about the superiority of the Aryan race by running faster than them.
This is the kind of clean, highly moralised, yet illogical narrative that only exists in bad sports movies, including one about Owens himself. It's also a dishonest history to teach children. In reality, newspapers in the American south refused to print Owens' photo, or make any mention of the fact that black American athletes dominated the Olympic games, a reaction that managed to be more childish and whitewashing than that of the Nazis. Northern papers celebrated Owens' American-ness and noted his blackness, but hardly framed Owens' performance as a refutation of Nazism, let alone American racism.
The ugly truth is that German Nazis treated Owens – publicly, at least – with far more respect than he received stateside, reserving their characteristically racist remarks for private diaries and internal communiques. Berlin and most of Europe loved Owens. In turn, Owens had nothing but positive things to say about Hitler during and immediately after the Games – despite popular legend, Hitler didn't snub Owens of a handshake – and had less than glowing things to say about his stateside compatriots who stripped him of his amateur status for skipping a post-Olympics tournament in Sweden.
The Nazi propaganda machine knew full well the opportunity the 1936 Games afforded to portray a calm, cool, and collected front to the rest of the world. Hitler and his senior party officials were infamously bothered by the success of the roughly dozen American black athletes who medaled at the event. But, that success also gave the Nazis an opportunity to demonstrate that it didn't bother them at all.
As such, it's an historical irony that a ladder-climbing Nazi filmmaker funded by Nazi Germany's Ministry of Propaganda to create a film glamorizing the Third Reich is now mainly known for the primary footage of one of the best black athletes who ever lived.
Leni Riefenstahl, a German actress and filmmaker, entered Nazi party circles after sending Hitler an admiring letter. As a New Yorker review of a recent biography noted, she was a regular presence at propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels's social events, something she denied until his diary surfaced in the 1990s (however, her denial of an affair with Hitler seems to be genuine).
As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's website describes, Hitler hand-picked Riefenstahl for a film capturing the 1936 Olympics because she "could use aesthetics to produce an image of a strong Germany imbued with Wagnerian motifs of power and beauty." Richard Wagner was all about sweeping, grand-scale shows, and Hitler was a fan. (As it happens, "Wagnerian motifs of power and beauty" is a pretty solid description of the modern Olympics. Make of that what you will.) Riefenstahl's assignment was simple: showcase the first Olympics marketed as a true mega-event.
Riefenstahl directed the two 1936 Olympics films, Fest der Völker (Festival of the People) and Fest der Schönheit (Festival of Beauty). After the war, she repeatedly claimed these films were funded by the International Olympic Committee and produced by her own production company, not the Nazi government. She also claimed that Goebbels ordered her to remove footage of Owens and other black athletes winning events, a request she refused. By Riefenstahl's telling, she was a principled documentarian, standing up to Nazi censorship.
Her account is entirely fictitious, and almost certainly an attempt to distance herself from the Nazi war machine during the postwar Nuremberg trial era. The Ministry of Propaganda gave Riefenstahl a large budget and creative control. It took her 18 months to cut and edit the films into a single feature, titled Olympia, which premiered in 1938 at Hitler's birthday party in Berlin. Olympia was a hit, made a profit for the Ministry of Propaganda, and won a Gold Medal at the 1938 Venice Film Festival. Riefenstahl traveled to America concurrently with Kristallnacht – she believed the event was invented by the American media – to try and get American distribution for the film, but the only major Hollywood figure who would even meet with her was Walt Disney.
Thanks to the Nazi propaganda machine, however, we are able to watch Jesse Owens run in cinematic quality. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Riefenstahl pioneered numerous cinematographic techniques, such as filming footage with cameras mounted on rails (commonly known today as tracking shots)." She also used powerful telephoto lenses and underwater cameras. You can see her work in the presentation of Owens's 100 meter win.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Olympia is not a documentary in the truest sense of the word. Athletes replicated their accomplishments for the cameras and Riefenstahl used her creative license during editing to re-imagine events in a more glamorous light. You know, propaganda.
As Claudia Roth Pierpont noted in the New Yorker review, it worked: "The surprisingly close attention that Riefenstahl's cameras paid to Jesse Owens, the African-American star of the games, was meant to assuage the world's fears about German policies, as were the many images of a smiling, chatting, unprecedentedly 'human' Hitler. And yet Riefenstahl's shots of Owens have an undeniable warmth. It's an insoluble paradox that she demonstrates real devotion to the achievements of both men."
Framing the issue as a "paradox" misconceives how the Nazi party viewed blacks, Jews, and all other "inferior" races. This is perhaps best illustrated, as quoted in David Goldblatt's history of the Olympics, by a German Foreign Office official responding to the success of black American athletes: "If Germany had had the bad sportsmanship to enter deer or another species of fleet-footed animal, it would have taken the honours from America in the track events."
According to Nazi ideology, Jesse Owens' success was not a human success; therefore, it disproved nothing about their racist worldview. Sadly but not surprisingly, some Americans agreed. Dean Cromwell, assistant coach of the U.S. track team at the 1936 Games, argued, "the negro excels in the events as he does because he is closer to the primates than the white man."
Luckily, we don't need to spend any time dwelling on those remarks, because the film speaks for itself. Owens's time of 10.3 may be slow by modern standards – it would miss today's U.S. Track and Field automatic qualifying standards – but that is largely a function of how technology (and doping) has improved, not the sprinters themselves. According to sports science journalist David Epstein, sprinters in Owens's time used cinders, the ash burned from wood, as a starting block, and had to use a trowel to dig holes to start from before running down a soft surface. Today, sprinters have carefully crafted blocks to launch themselves and a "specially fabricated carpet designed to allow him to travel as fast as humanly possible," as Epstein puts it. The best attempts to determine how fast Owens would have run under contemporary track conditions put him within a stride of Usain Bolt's world record.
Those calculations allow us to contextualise Owens's ability, but Riefenstahl's footage does far more than that. With alternating angles and close-ups of Owens pre- and post-race, the viewer gets an unusual sense of his power and grace. In the 100 metre final, he sprints with ease past the pack as the other runners – silver medalist African-American Ralph Metcalfe excepted – completely break down in form, flailing and lurching in a vain attempt to retain their dignity. Owens' composed style made him not only athletically superior, but aesthetically better, too. He was, and is, a beautiful runner.
A note on sourcing: Many details about the popular reaction to Owens in Germany and stateside come from Goldblatt's work in The Games.