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Jesse Owens, Man and Myth at the 1936 Olympics

Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics
By Jeremy Schaap
Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $24.

Hitler’s snub of sprinter Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics is well known: Unwilling to recognize a black runner’s prowess, the story goes, Hitler refused to acknowledge Owens after the American athlete won the 100-meter dash. Indeed, Owens himself repeatedly recounted the incident late in his life.

There’s only one problem: The story is most likely apocryphal.

As sports journalist Jeremy Schaap points out in his vividly written “Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics,” American newspaper accounts filed by onsite journalists reported that Owens and Hitler exchanged waves after Owens won the 100-meter dash. Of course, the Nazi leader didn’t welcome Owens in his box, as he did some of the early “Aryan” winners. By the time Owens won the 100-meter, international Olympic officials had told Hitler not to honor any gold medalists that way, because Hitler left the Olympic stadium before greeting Cornelius Johnson, an earlier U.S. black gold medalist. “Hitler didn’t receive Owens, but he did not snub him — at least, that’s not how Hitler’s actions were reported by eyewitnesses,” or by Owens at the time, Schaap writes.

Snub or no snub, Owens was the acknowledged star of the Berlin Games. The 100-meter dash was only one of his four gold medals. (He also triumphed in the 200 meters, participated in the 4×100-meter relay and won what is known today as the long jump. The feat is still considered one of the greatest in Olympic history.)

Right after the games, Owens turned professional, barnstorming around the country, often in races against horses. He was never able to parlay his performance into long-term fame, later working for the state of Illinois as a physical education consultant, as an executive for Ford and for a sporting-goods company before dying in 1980 at the age of 66. But if Owens never achieved stardom, he certainly came a long way from his origins.

Schaap spends the first part of “Triumph” recounting Owens’s early years. Owens was born into sharecropping poverty in Alabama, where he lived for the first nine years of his life. Then, like so many African Americans of the 20th century, his family moved up north, to Ohio, where Owens became a teenage running phenomenon.

The second part of the book details the games themselves and the Nazis’ efforts to use the Olympics as propaganda. Schaap focuses on Nazi filmmaker and propagandist Leni Riefenstahl’s efforts to film the games, weaving together her famous — and infamous — effort to document the Olympics on celluloid with Owens’s performance at the games.

Like his earlier book about boxer James J. Braddock (Schaap’s “Cinderella Man” shares the same title, but is not connected to the Ron Howard-directed movie about Braddock), “Triumph” is strongest when it focuses on Owens’s wins and losses and how they intersected with the politics of the time. Schaap isn’t hurt by the fact that track and field, like boxing, generated far more sports headlines in the 1930s than it does today.

Schaap also highlights the dispute in the United States over whether to participate in the Berlin Games. Much of this material is available elsewhere, most notably in an online exhibit on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Web site. But the battle, which featured a pro-boycott letter signed by 20 former U.S. Olympic champions, and a close vote within the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, will still come as news to many readers, and Schaap tells it well.

Braddock’s Depression-era, rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story gives him an almost saintlike quality, but Owens was a much more complex character. Although Owens displayed some sympathy for the boycott, he generally opposed it, in part because he didn’t want to give up his shot at the Olympics. Nor was Owens’s personal life scandal-free: During the run-up to the games, his flirtations with an actress in California while he had a serious girlfriend and child back in Ohio were well covered in the media.

Schaap even questions some of Owens’s actions during the games themselves. The story has always gone that Owens spoke out against Olympics track coach Lawson Robertson’s decision to leave Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, the Jewish team members, off the 4×100 relay team. Glickman, later a prominent New York sports broadcaster, always attributed his removal to the desire of the American track coaches and Avery Brundage, the villainous head of the United States Olympic Committee, to appease Hitler and the Nazis. It seems clear that when the decision was announced to the team, Owens opposed it. But as Schaap points out, Owens had campaigned throughout the early part of the games to compete on the team, even though custom and competition — no other relay team was considered a threat to the Americans — argued against it.

As far as the supposed Hitler snub is concerned, only when Owens became a regular on the lecture circuit did he begin describing the incident that way. On the book’s final page, Schaap briefly speculates about Owens’s turnabout: “In his mind, he easily justified his dissembling. Denied by white America the opportunities for wealth that he thought he was owed, he exaggerated his stories to make a good living.”

Did Owens die a bitter man? Unfortunately, Schaap never tells us, instead ending his book by weaving in the Riefenstahl subplot. Unlike the multi-event star Owens, Schaap could have improved his fine work by sticking to his main thread.

Peter Ephross regularly reviews books for Publishers Weekly and Until recently, he was the foreign editor at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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