I tend to divide the Olympics as a business from the athletes. I respect the athletes greatly. Whatever ideals the event may have embodied, I lose respect for the Olympic committees and the collaborating corporations — media companies, advertisers, etc — all the time.
The business seems to focus on making money while protecting its sustainable competitive advantage — its brand — at draconian costs to the freedom of athletes, attendees, and other participants. Meanwhile the Olympic committee takes bribes, applies rules arbitrarily, colludes with governments to curtail speech and coverage of the events, etc.
The value of sports continues to surprise me
Still, the value of sports perennially surprises me in raising people’s awareness and cooperation, despite the politicization and commercialization of the Olympics.
Some stuff I read about Jesse Owens surprised me and made me reconsider my stance on some Olympic events.
Were I alive in 1936 and asked if the U.S. should participate in or boycott the Olympics in Nazi-run Berlin, I would almost certainly have sided with boycotting the games. I would have condemned the Olympic committee for collaborating with the Nazis, even though I understand they picked Berlin before the Nazis came to power.
Though no one could have predicted the outcome, I think Jesse Owens’s performance showed participating ended up the more effective choice. His winning four marquis events in Hitler’s back yard, amid Nazi racial propaganda, stands out as a major historical event of the twentieth century, further strengthened by his calmness in the face of adversity.
As much as I dislike the direction of the business of the games and would prefer to separate them from politics, at times athleticism can transcend most human interactions to promote understanding, especially of our common humanity.
Had the U.S. boycotted the Berlin games, I doubt history would have remembered or celebrated the boycott like we remember, celebrate, and honor Owens’s achievement.
The shock: the United States and Jesse Owens
I came across some surprises about Jesse Owens’s experience after winning. According to Wikipedia and its references
Owens was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels in Germany as whites, while at the time blacks in many parts of the United States had to stay in segregated hotels while traveling. After a New York City ticker-tape parade of Fifth Avenue in his honor, Owens had to ride the freight elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria to reach the reception honoring him.
Owens said, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” On the other hand, Hitler sent Owens a commemorative inscribed cabinet photograph of himself. Jesse Owens was never invited to the White House nor were honors bestowed upon him by President Franklin D. Roosevelt or his successor Harry S. Truman during their terms.
Jesse Owens, in the United States, had to ride in the freight elevator to a reception in his honor after performing one of the greatest snubs anyone achieved of Hitler.
My point is obviously not to compare Hitler with FDR or Truman, but to highlight the systemic problems the United States still had at the time not discriminating on skin color.
Later, he found impenetrable glass ceilings and exploitation. Despite credentials as one of this country’s great historical figures, he couldn’t find meaningful work. I don’t know the details — maybe he had problems I don’t know about — but it’s hard not to conclude a racist system more powerful than he could overcome.
Owens helped promote the exploitation film Mom and Dad in black neighborhoods. He tried to make a living as a sports promoter, essentially an entertainer. He would give local sprinters a ten- or twenty-yard start and beat them in the 100-yd (91-m) dash. He also challenged and defeated racehorses; as he revealed later, the trick was to race a high-strung thoroughbred that would be frightened by the starter’s shotgun and give him a bad jump. Owens said, “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
Owens ran a dry cleaning business and worked as a gas station attendant to earn a living. He eventually filed for bankruptcy. In 1966, he was successfully prosecuted for tax evasion. At rock bottom, he was aided in beginning rehabilitation.
Within the lifetimes of many people alive today — my grandmother — a country that holds itself as the greatest on Earth didn’t have it in it for its leaders to congratulate one of its greatest citizens or even find a way to let him ride an elevator.
Did Americans at the time realize what their country did? I can only hope that the parts we’ve improved of our country improved in part for this behavior.
What about us today?
To the extent people accepted behavior most people today would consider shameful, what behavior do we exhibit today that future people will consider shameful?
If you think people should have done things differently then, what will future historians think you should do differently today, or do you consider things as good as they can be? Perhaps you feel powerless to do anything or have other priorities?
Learn to make Meaningful Connections
with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.
- Step by step instructions
- Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
- An excerpt from my book