Nothing Excels like Excellence Itself ... the Remarkable Story of Africa-And Africans (Both Continental and Diasporan)-At the Olympic Games

By Goodwin, Clayton | New African, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Nothing Excels like Excellence Itself ... the Remarkable Story of Africa-And Africans (Both Continental and Diasporan)-At the Olympic Games


Goodwin, Clayton, New African


Africans will figure prominently among the medal-winners at the Beijing Olympic Games--that, together with death and taxes, is one of the very few certainties of life. Whether from the African continent or from the Diaspora, athletes of African heritage will so dominate certain track and field events as to make them their own preserve.

But there was a time not so long ago that European athletes, and the occasional Oriental, had things very much their own way. It is not only the traditional homelands that are represented by black athletes, but otherwise blond-haired Scandinavia, even Japan, and Germany, where, as we shall see later, the Games became entwined with "the politics of race".

Just a few years ago, I reported on a tournament in Bremen in which the German women's relay team comprised three Africans and an Asian. The ghost of Adolf Hitler must have been turning in its bunker.

The spirit of Nazism hovered huge over the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. Germany was then in the midst of the administration's campaign against its Jewish citizens--and it was the Jewish communities of the USA, and beyond, which demanded a boycott of the Berlin Olympics as a protest.

Even so, African Americans shook to its roots the presumption of "Aryan superiority". Berlin 1936 will be associated always with the name of Jesse Owens, so it is as well to dispose as soon as possible of the myth that Hitler refused to shake his hand. It was the high-jumper Cornelius Johnson whom the dictator slighted, but stories are always attracted to the better-known personality. Owens achieved enough as it was to give the Nazis a few sleepless nights. It is true, however, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not shake Owen's hand in congratulation when he returned home. Hitler and Roosevelt; racism is truly a disease!

Jesse Owens won medals in three sprint events--100m, 200m and 4 x 100m. In the process, he beat his celebrated African American compatriot Ralph Metcalfe who had come to the fore at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Owens' fourth gold medal--in the long jump--has received much comment because he attributed Lutz Long, the German popular hero, with giving him the advice he used to survive the preliminary round. Their friendship--like that of heavyweight boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmeling--defied the "racial hype" surrounding the competition. Today a street close to the former Olympic Stadium in the fashionable Charlottenburg western suburb of Berlin is known as the Jesse-Owens-Allee. As for Adolf Hitler--there isn't a memorial to him in the whole of his former capital city (or anywhere). So let us remember him here by some of his own words on the Games which, perhaps, on reflection he would have preferred to forget:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn't separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That's why the Olympic Flame should never die."

That is something to which Owens and Long (who lost his life in the war which Hitler unleashed three years later) showed their assent.

The world had turned through several social revolutions by the time that the next Olympic Games were staged in London in 1948. Black Americans were no longer invisible on the international stage--during the Second World War (1939-1945) they had played their part in the fighting and the "war effort" generally.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

By this time, too, the Caribbean Commonwealth had come to London--particularly in the form of the Jamaican short-distance runners. Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley fought a tremendous battle for the 400m--won by the former who was felled later by injury when his 4 x 400m relay team were placed well for the gold medal.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Their impact was felt even more strongly four years later at the Helsinki Olympic Games. …

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