Over thanksgiving break I saw, Race, a sports drama film about African American athlete Jesse Owens, who won a record-breaking four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Race is partly a biographical drama about legendary gold medalist Jesse Owens and partly a historical drama about the American Olympic Committee’s controversial decision to attend the Nazi-run 1936 Olympics.
The thorniest question, partly addressed by the film, is whether Owens should or shouldn’t have competed. Would a boycott by America’s foremost athlete have made the point more strongly than the gold medals he won, right in the Nazis’ faces? It’s a dilemma echoed by the #OscarSoWhite controversy and decisions by Will Smith and others not to attend, and even more recently with the backlash Collin Kaepernick is receiving. I believe Owen’s story is very relevant as to why athletes have every right to capitalize on their participation in major sporting events to challenge injustices.
In the United States, Owens found himself caught in a struggle between the president of the Amateur Athletic Union, who urged an American boycott of the ’36 Summer Games. But we know this doesn’t happen. What actually happened was a haughty industrialist named Avery Brundage, who argued for American participation and stated that politics had no place in the Olympics, negotiated the terms of American participation with Goebbels (Hitler’s second in command) to allow limited participation by Jewish athletes. Owens, under enormous pressure from both sides, vacillates, but eventually goes to Berlin. Before he makes his decision, there is a factually inaccurate moment where representatives of the N.A.A.C.P. visit and gently plead with him to boycott the Games.
The real-life letter written to Owens by NAACP secretary Walter White argues “how hypocritical it is for certain Americans to point the finger of scorn at any other country for racial […] bigotry”, which is certainly backed up by the humiliating compromises Brundage went on to make. “I don’t know if there’s that much difference, deep down,” says Owens, in the film’s boldest line, about his own nation and Germany.
In another poignant moments, Carl “Luz” Long, Owens’s German challenger for the long jump, befriends Owens, gives him crucial advice and expresses his loathing of the Nazi agenda. Although this dramatic moment almost feels too good to be true, it really took place. Because this interaction undercut Hitler’s racist agenda, Luz Long was stripped of all his titles and forced to enlist following the olympic games. Owens remained friends with Long until he died in 1943 while fighting for Germany in World War II.
The film is complex and educational, though it has issues of representation and posits that sports should always rise above the political, I think everyone should give it a watch!