Monday, August 25, 2008
THE FRIENDSHIP THAT HUMILIATED HITLER
The People’s Republic of China has successfully used the Beijing Olympics to demonstrate to the world that they are an economic and political super-power. Since a large part of my heart is in China, and I love the Chinese people for Jesus’ sake, I’ve been proud to see the quality of their planning and implementation of even the tiniest details throughout the games. They enlisted and trained over 70,000 official Olympic volunteers, which is a massive accomplishment in itself! I think they have been successful in accomplishing their desire to show China to world.
In contrast, Adolph Hitler failed miserably in his attempt to use the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a platform to promote Nazism and Arian superiority. The Olympics were held on the verge of World War II, with the city and stadium covered with red and black swastikas flying everywhere. German soldiers goose-stepped and saluted the ever-present, posturing Hitler.
By the time the Olympics were over, Jesse Owen, an African-American son of an Alabama sharecropper had crushed Hilter’s myth of racial superiority. He won five gold medals. In addition, he humiliated Hilter through a brief but unique friendship with a Nazi poster boy. More on that in a moment.
Jesse Owens was born James Cleveland Owens in Oakville, Alabama on September 12, 1913. At the age of nine, his family moved to Cleveland. When a new teacher asked his name, he answered “J.C.” in his quiet southern drawl. The teacher misunderstood and called him “Jesse.” He was too shy to correct her, so he was Jesse from then on.
After a stellar track career at Ohio State, Owens arrived at the Berlin Olympics facing intense opposition because of his skin color. In Germany, Nazis portrayed negroes as inferior and ridiculed the U.S.A. for relying on what they called “black auxiliaries.” One German official even criticized the U.S. for allowing “non-humans, like Owens and other Negro athletes” to compete.
Owens, a quiet, humble man, took it all with dignity. During the trials for the long-jump, Owens came dangerously close to not qualifying. He fouled on his first two jumps, and was stunned when officials counted a practice run down the runway as one of his attempts. He had only one jump left to qualify for the finals. It was at this point that Luz Long, a tall, blue-eyed, blonde German long jumper stepped in and introduced himself to Owens. Long was Germany’s best and was expected to win the gold, with Owens being his stiffest competition. Luz Long suggested that Owens make a mark several inches short of the takeoff board and jump from there to be safe. Owens took his advice and easily qualified. He went on to win the gold medal in the long jump and Luz Long took the silver. Long was the first to embrace Owens and congratulate him on his win. Long looked the part of the model Nazi, but he wasn’t.
Later Owens would comment: “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.”
Owens returned to America as a hero, but he still wasn’t exempt from the racial discrimination that existed in his home country. He received a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York City, and there was a reception held in his honor at the top of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. However, in a sad ironic twist to his story, this “hero” was forced to ride the freight elevator to attend his own reception that evening.
Lucrative sports endorsements were rare during the Depression and Owens struggled to have enough money to eat. He resorted to participating in events like racing against horses and dogs. He would later say, “People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
It wasn’t until the 1950’s that Owens attained financial security by becoming a public speaker for corporations and public relations events. Owens died at the age of 66 in Tucson, Arizona in 1980.
His success in the 1936 Olympics far surpassed the impact of simply winning a race or jumping the farthest. His masterful performance was a political and racial statement that was heard around the world. Finally, ten years after his death in 1990, our country gave Jesse Owens a fitting reward for what he really accomplished. President George H. Bush posthumously awarded Owens the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in America, calling his accomplishments, “an unrivaled athletic triumph, but more than that, a triumph for all humanity.”
This is a great reminder to me that as followers of Jesus Christ, our greatest reward will be given to us posthumously - when the nail-scarred Hands pass out the crowns of righteousness at the Bema - but we'll be more alive than ever before as we cast our crowns at His feet!
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