Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics, by Jeremy Schaap

Considered by many the greatest Olympian of all time, Jesse Owens took center stage at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, winning 4 gold medals and doing his part to shatter Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy. Triumph follows his story, from his first informal races as a boy in Ohio, to his unprecedented performance at the 1936 Olympic Games.  Jeremy Schaap tells Owens' story in the context of the history and controversy leading up to and during the Olympics, bringing the reader into the passions of the day.
Owens loved to run as a boy--no surprise there.  His gym coach noticed him in class, primarily because of the perfect form of his legs.  Throughout his career, his physical form was noted by many coaches and admirers.  When, as a pre-teen, he ran an impromptu 100 yard dash in world-class time, the coach thought his stopwatch must have malfunctioned, but recognized the talent he had on his hands.  Starting with the great raw material of Owens's natural form and perfect body, he worked around Owens's school and work schedule--young Jesse's earnings were a major contribution to the Owens family budget--and helped him gain the attention of college coaches.  Owens attended Ohio State, where he set multiple records and led the track team, working toward qualifying for the 1936 Olympics.

Schaap spends a lengthy section of the book discussing the American movement to boycott the Berlin Olympics.  The Germans were turning somersaults keeping Jews off their Olympic teams.  Many Americans wanted to boycott the Olympics as a protest against the German's racism.  The hypocrisy of the American position is laughable in retrospect.  Jackie Robinson was still a decade away from playing in major league baseball.  Consider Jesse Owens: the star of the OSU track team, he was not even permitted to live on campus!  When he traveled to meets, he couldn't stay in the same hotels and eat in the same restaurants as his white teammates.  Yet the Americans wanted to call Hitler on the carpet for his racism.

Coincidentally, I recently watched Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, which documented the 1936 games.  Schaap gives details of Riefenstahl's experiences during the filming.  In spite of Hitler's desire to feature Aryan supremacy in the games and in the film, Riefenstahl made Owens the star of her film, just as he turned out to be the star of the games.  Schaap gives some interesting background on Riefenstahl and her film, which was a much bigger deal than I realized.

Schaap presents Owens as a remarkable natural talent who remained humble about his accomplishments, yet always wanted to do more.  When the press and others were famously talking about the snub from Hitler, who didn't formally congratulate Owens after his wins, as he did many of the white athletes, Owens refused to fall into the fray.  He noted that Hitler waved at him after he won.  In fact, he later cheekily went on to say that Hitler hadn't snubbed him, that FDR had by not sending Owens a congratulatory telegram.

Few have ever run as fast or as well as Owens.  Winning 4 gold medals at the Olympics is a rare feat.  Breaking 3 world records and tying a fourth in under an hour at a college track meet, as he did in 1935, may never be done again.  He was truly a one-of-a-kind runner.

No comments:

Post a Comment