The Jesse Owens Games

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Bob Teevan

The Jesse Owens Games

A close look at this postcard with a powerful magnifier and then a considerable bit of research time, I learned some interesting facts. The first being, the list down the right-hand side of the noticeboard are obviously times credited to the participants in a race. The words U.S.A., GR BRIT, and KANADA, plus the names ROBERTS and WILLIAMS are all readable.

It was not necessarily an easy search, but eventually some Olympic “track and field” statistics that matched the image on the card appeared and confirmed that the image shows the final results of a 400-meter sprint held during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. From the statistical and historical records, it was possible to confirm that the result was:

1. Archie Williams. U.S.A. 46.5
2. Godfrey Brown. GT BRIT. 46.7
3. James LuValle. U.S.A. 46.8
4. Bill Roberts. GT. BRIT. 46.8
5. William Fritz. CANADA 47.8
6. Johnny Loaring. CANADA 48.2

In the foreground there is a gentleman wearing a cap. It would be easy to assume him to be an official of the games, but he could have just as easily been a member of the German military. The flags above the scoreboard indicate the home countries of the first three runners. It would be easy to identify the other flags if they were just a bit unfurled. Since Adolph Hitler intended the ’36 Olympics to be a showcase of Aryan strength and power could it be assumed that the other flags were on display to placate other countries that sympathized with the National Socialist Party.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics – officially the Games of the XI Olympiad – have come to be known in the vernacular as the “Jesse Owens” games. It was at these games that the American Jesse Owens famously won four gold medals and at which Adolf Hitler was furious that a black athlete had defeated his German supermen. After the Long Jump final, Hitler shook the hands of the German competitors and none other. He then left the stadium. Hitler was later encouraged to shake ‘all hands or none at all’ and he chose the latter and did not attend any further medal ceremonies. (Please keep in mind that in 1936 the world was either unaware – or disinterested – in what Hitler was doing to his own people and that in 1938 he was the Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.”)

The accusation of being a racist that is attached to Hitler has a long history. How it concerned Jesse Owens is not. Apparently, Owens said later that year “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

It can also be said that racism wasn’t restricted to Hitler as this headline and report from The Scotsman of August 8, 1936, also refers to race.

AMERICAN NEGRO IN CLOSE FINISH. Olympic Stadium, Berlin, August 7.
British hopes of winning her first Olympic track title were not realized today, when her athletes failed to carry off either the 400-meter or 5000-meter finals. [Godfrey] Brown, the British quarter-mile champion, made a gallant effort and ran second in the 400-meter final. Brown ran splendidly, but just failed to get the better of the American negro [Archie] Williams, after a very close finish. J. E. Lu Valle, another American, was third, and the other British runner in the final, W. Roberts, fourth.

Not convinced that race was thought worthy of mention by The Scotsman. The next caption was entitled, ANOTHER TRIUMPH FOR NEGROES.

The address side of the card has a postcard apparatus that includes the words “LEONE, 4 Crown Hill, Croydon” forming the center line. The suspicion that the card was a modern printing led to the discovery of the following in the Croydon Advertiser and East Surrey Reporter of November 17, 1939.

“YOUTH. 17-18. required for photographic studio; one who is
keen on photography preferred. – Leone, 4, Crown Hill, Croydon.”

So, there was a photographer named Leone operating at this address within three years of the games. Knowing this, it may be safe to assume the image is of Leone’s making.


Caveat: The use of language and the constant change of words which are deemed acceptable or unacceptable is a thing with which I have difficulty keeping pace. I try hard to use the correct or current language to avoid any offence although this can be difficult when using historical references.

When writing the original post, I was sensitive in my use of language, although today while checking spelling and grammar, I am now invited to change the word “negro” to “black person.”

When returning to the newspaper reports at the time of the games, it is easy to notice that when the reports commented on Jesse Owens, they always used complimentary wording regarding his speed, presentation, and outstanding talent, although – and I don’t believe offence was intended – they, without exception, used words such as negro, black, ebony streak, black streak, and black panther to comment on the color of his skin.

Today when speaking of Jessie Owens outside the benefit of history, hopefully there would be no need to refer to his skin color, unless doing so to preserve historical accuracy of the context of the reports of 1936.

The change of language, especially the English language, is highly topical in many places. It would be nice to think that the changes are reflective of inclusiveness and not necessarily a marketing exercise.

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I recently saw a excellent movie on TV called “Race” about Jesse Owens leading up to, and at the Berlin Olympics.
On another note, I joined the above Facebook postcard group, and I’m very glad I did.

Thank you for the discussion of how black people are described and what words to use. It is ever changing.

Very interesting about tracing the origin of the photo.

Jesse Owens was originally named James Cleveland Owens, but when he moved with his family from Alabama to (ironically) the city of Cleveland, he replied “J.C.” when a teacher asked his name. She misheard his accented pronunciation as “Jesse”, and he was subsequently known as that for the rest of his life.

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