“Race” tells the inspiring story of the great American Olympian Jesse Owens. (Focus Features image)

“Race” and the Larger Meaning of the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games were a rousing victory for the Nazi regime, which exploited the event’s propaganda value for all it was worth. The film Race tells the story of those Games through the lens of the great Olympian Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in track and field. However, since the film focuses tightly on Owens, most of the larger meaning of the 1936 Berlin Games is lost.

Just by sending teams to Germany, the United States and other countries lent legitimacy to Hitler’s still-young regime, in the eyes both of German citizens, especially young people, and of the world. Yes, Owens was the standout athlete and, like his contemporary, boxer Joe Louis, he inspired enormous pride within the African-American community at home, but, German athletes won the most medals overall by far. The Germans mounted an unprecedented spectacle of sports.

The Germans mounted an unprecedented spectacle of sports.

The International Olympic Committee chose Berlin as the 1936 Olympics host city in 1931, two years before Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor. Nazi ultra-nationalism, militarism, and racism were hardly a good fit for Olympic internationalist ideals. German Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels had to convince Hitler that the Olympics were an invaluable opportunity. Goebbels knew that the Olympics were the perfect arena for the Nazi party — a movement that had mastered the propagandistic use of mass spectacles and gatherings. The desire to showcase “the new Germany” in a favorable light was the main reason that Hitler agreed to host the Games.

The story of Hitler publicly snubbing Owens by refusing to shake his hand, depicted in Race, is a widely held myth used to reinforce the feel-good story about Owens’s accomplishments today. Nazi leaders were not pleased by the dominance of African-American athletes in track and field events, of course, but that incident didn’t happen. Germany did everything possible to present a public facade of hospitality during the games, and by all accounts, it succeeded. Goebbels even issued directives to the domestic German press to create a positive ambience for all Olympians. “Negroes should not be insensitively reported,” he advised. “Negroes are American citizens and must be treated with respect as Americans.”

Nazi efforts to suspend persecution of Jews during the Games, including removing anti-Jewish signs from the streets, as part of the conscious strategy to soften the regime’s international image are also glossed over in Race. In one scene, Owens’s coach, Larry Snyder, accidentally wanders up a back street in Berlin and comes upon police rounding up what viewers assume are Jews. In reality, Snyder would have seen nothing of the sort at the time of the Olympics.

Jesse Owens in August of 1936. (Photo courtesy of Rosemarie Stone, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

One place where Race gets the story right is its depiction of Owens wrestling with his conscience about whether to compete in Olympic trials. He was pressured, on one side, by supporters of a boycott of the Nazi-sponsored games, including the NAACP, and on the other side by some African-American journalists, who pushed him to represent his race with pride. Perhaps the strongest influence in his decision to compete was his coach, Snyder, whose desire for reflected glory superseded any lofty political considerations.

Had the US opted against participating, it certainly would have been a big blow to German prestige. Nazi leaders knew this and worked hard to avoid a boycott. They even included a token “non-Aryan,” star fencer Helen Mayer (whose father was Jewish), on the German team to meet Olympic requirements of non-discrimination. Some scholars think this gesture may have made the crucial difference. In the end, the authorizing Amateur Athletic Union voted by a narrow margin for the US team to go to Berlin.

While Race helps advance part of the popular narrative about the Games by reminding viewers of the little-known boycott efforts, in the end the focus on Owens’s victories works to reinforce the myth that the Nazis were losers and not winners. In reality, Hitler’s Nazi dictatorship scored a huge propaganda success as host of the Olympics.

Written by Susan Bachrach, special exhibitions curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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