Sports have been there for us in our most trying times, which is why the coronavirus hits so hard for sports fans across the world. With sports at every level and locale grinding to a halt, all fans can do is wait. When that wait finally ends, fans across the world will rejoice, as sports once again picks us up and gets us back to everyday life. NESN.com looks at past times when sports played an enormous role in helping us return to normalcy.
It’s perhaps the most noteworthy example depicting the entwined nature of sports and politics.
An African American man, Jesse Owns, entered Hitler’s Coliseum to take part in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and tore apart the dictator’s theory of Aryan physical supremacy. Owens won four goal medals, one of which came in the 100 meters on Aug. 3, 1936, with others wins in the 200 meters, long jump and 4×100 meters relay.
At the time, and really to this day, Owens’ historical importance was best depicted as he took the medal stand in front of Hitler’s Germany. It was arguably as profound as any single sports moment in history, especially since the Olympian ideals of competition and internationalism repulsed the Nazis, in large part due to Jewish and black athletes competing against white athletes.
As told by Daily Mail in 2009, the leader of the Nazi Youth movement at the time, Baldur von Schirach, suggested Hitler be photographed with the Owens after all the American’s success. It prompted a reply of “The Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by negroes. I myself would never shake hands with one of them.”
The Hitler snub was recognized. The good news was not everyone felt the same way.
Owens later said his greatest memory of the 1936 Games was not the races or medals, but one relationship he made with German long jumper Luz Long.
Long showed, at that time, an unfathomable level of sportsmanship as he quite literally marked a few inches before the take-off board and suggested Owens jump from there, ensuring Owens would qualify. Owens took his advice, made it to the finals and won. Long was among the first congratulators.
The two men exchanged letters after the Games, but never saw each other again. However, Owens remembered Long’s courage to “befriend me in front of Hitler,” as he recalled.
Long died during World War II. Owens himself died March 31, 1980.
But the relationship developed between the two is perhaps the best depiction of how sports has, and always will, help us heal.