The story of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics is well known. What is not well known is that Jesse Owens nearly didn’t compete in one of his gold medal wins, just so his Jewish teammates could compete.
The story of Jesse Owens, the African-American athlete whose mere presence was an affront to Hitler in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is perhaps the most well-known story to come out of those Olympic trials. The fact that he won four gold medals was a stark counter to the Nazi propaganda machine and a spit in the face to the Nazi organizers of the Berlin Olympics.
What is perhaps not well known is how Jesse Owens almost didn’t compete in one of his gold medal wins, the 400 meter relay race.
While it is obvious that Nazi Germany would be prejudiced and biased towards black and Jewish athletes, it must be said that within the United States there was also prejudice towards Jewish athletes at the time.
A short report from Berlin in the Sentinel shows the overt prejudice. Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman were the only athletes on the U.S. team not to participate in the games. They were also the only Jewish athletes on the team. To add insult to injury, they were only told on the day of the event that they would not be able to compete.
Jesse Owens’ sense of justice came to the forefront and he offered to give up his spot in the relay race in order to let his teammates run in the competition. The solidarity between Owens, Stoller and Glickman is an example of how the time period created an alliance between minorities within a society that was biased against them on the basis of their race.
At the time both Stoller and Glickman denied there was anti-Semitism involved, though later in life, Glickman would say what had happened was fueled by anti-Semitism. This fact becomes starker when you consider that Avrey Brundage, the then chairman of the American Olympic Committee, was unapologetically pro-Nazi and admired Hitler himself.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics, possibly the most contentious modern Olympic event in history, was a symptom of the conciliatory policies towards Nazi Germany.
At the time there had been demands to boycott the Olympic games by various amateur athletic groups, such as the Committee on Fair Play in Sports in America. The Committee even released a booklet detailing the ways in which Nazi Germany went against the ideals of the Olympic games. The boycotts were not successful, thanks to Brundage’s and others work to get the American team to the Olympics in 1936.
It is no secret that Hitler’s intention was for the Berlin Olympics to prove the racial hierarchy he tried to implement.
Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman’s story during the 1936 Olympics remains a footnote in the history of those turbulant times, and a footnote in Jesse Owens’ own story.
Ownes became a symbol of American audacity and athletic ability, embarassing Hitler and the Reich in the process. In this, Owens did exactly what Brundage hoped to avoid by benching Stoller and Glickman.