What is one truly great moment in sporting history
It is hard to top the moment of Jesse Owens standing atop the Olympic podium during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
- Jesse Owens salutes the American flag after winning the long jump at the. Joining him on the podium are silver medalist of Germany, and bronze medalist of Japan.
Zooming in on the picture, you can see the proud Nazi, Lutz Long, with the Swastika emblazoned German crest on his sweater. In the background, isa high ranking Nazi and the organizer of the Berlin Olympics also giving the Nazi salute.
There is so much going on in this iconic moment, it is hard to articulate fully. The simple takeaway is the juxtaposition of freedom loving Americans against a backdrop of authoritarian evil—and that simple take is alone enough to make this moment one of the most memorable in sporting history.
Owens’ performance at the Berlin Olympics was nothing short of transcendent. He would collect four gold medals and his record in the long jump would not be surpassed for a quarter century. All of this under the watchful gaze of people that had deemed themselves the Master Race squirming uncomfortably as the antithesis of their manufactured “Aryan” superiority destroyed their White Supremacist illusions.
As compelling as Owens’ athletic achievement was, it remains overshadowed by the profound context of the moment.
Indeed, this moment was so huge that it has even spawned conspiracy theories suggesting that Hitler secretly liked Jesse Owens and other ridiculous claptrap. But far more memorable are the true stories about this grandson of a slave who became an international superstar yet would not be fully embraced by his own nation. After the long, difficult battle against bigotry to become members of the US Olympic Team, Owens and the other black athletes returned to the segregated reality of their home. Owens would carry wounds over the snub by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the rest of his life.
Whatever faults the nation which Owens represented so nobly, this moment remains a stark reminder of what can happen to a great nation when bigotries are allowed purchase in the hearts of its citizens and the flames of hate are fanned by its leaders. Germany’s greatness would soon wilt under the weight of its fear-driven temporary insanity.
There is a lesson here.
There is a lesson for those who understand that while history does not repeat,
Jesse Owens’ country has come very far since 1936, but there is still a long way to go before the content of one’s character is more important than skin pigmentation, religious beliefs, and gender. It is true that often Sport imitates Life. But at times like the 1936 Olympics, it too can be prescient.
And its memory may well serve as an ominous portent.