This iconic photograph was taken by Hoffmann and it shows a great event. The 1936 Summer Olympics were organized in Berlin, Germany at a time when Adolf Hitler was in power. Hitler used these Games as a stage for showing the rise of the Nazi Germany to the world. His philosophy was that the whites, especially Germans, were a better and the only civilized race on the face of earth. Colored, weak and Jews had no right to live among the civilized people, that’s what he thought.
But, in Berlin, Hitler was left red-faced by Jesse Owens; a black, track & field sportsperson from the United States. Owens won four gold medals (100m, 200m, 4x100m and long jump) beating all his white and German competitors. Hitler was reportedly annoyed by Owens’ performance because it thwarted his ideology that considered black people inferior. Owens’ feat was one of the biggest blows to what Hitler preached during his lifetime.
The photograph shows Owens standing on medal podium in gold position and saluting the American flag. People appearing this photograph include (left to right):
- Theodor Lewald (Germany): Member of the Olympic Organizing Committee
- Naoto Tajima (Japan): Bronze medalist
- Jesse Owens (USA): Gold Medalist
- Carl Ludwig “Luz” Long (Germany): Silver Medalist
The Germans are doing a Nazi salute. It was reported that Hitler refused to shake hands with Owens (Owens later said that Hitler merely waved at him). Later Hitler expressed his views about blacks to his War Armament Minister, Albert Speer. Speer recounted Hitler saying:
Each of the German victories, and there were a surprising number of these, made him happy, but he was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from the future games
It was, however, not only Hitler who snubbed Owens. His own Presidents (first Roosevelt and then Truman) also did not honor his achievements in a befitting manner. America was not a racism free country at that time. We all know the story of Muhammad Ali and how he was discriminated against in America. It was only during the reign of President Eisenhower that Owens was honored. In 1976, President Gerald Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But it is not that all Germans were like Hitler. Jesse Owens credited the Silver medalist Luz Long (appearing extreme right in the photograph) for giving him a valuable advice. Long advised Owens to lengthen his run before making jump. Owens followed the advice and went on to win the Gold medal. Long was the first person to congratulate Owens. Long and Owens posed together for photos and walked arm-in-arm to the dressing room.
Owens said, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler… You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the twenty-four karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment”.
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