Special to The History Place
My hometown is Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. One of my earliest memories involves the events surrounding the town’s decision in the mid-Fifties to change its name in honor of the Native American Olympian whom the King of Sweden dubbed “the Greatest Athlete in the World.” Anyone who has seen the Burt Lancaster film about the pentathlon/decathlon winner of the 1912 Games knows that Thorpe struggled to make ends meet after retiring from pro sports and died of heart failure at age 62, an alcoholic. During the four decades between his triumph in Stockholm and his death in relative obscurity, he suffered the humiliation of losing his gold medals for alleged professionalism (like many poor college athletes, he made a few bucks in the summertime playing minor league baseball).
Watching the career of African American athlete Jesse Owens in Race this weekend, I couldn’t avoid drawing parallels between Owens and Thorpe. James Cleveland Owens (Stephen James) came down from his namesake in northern Ohio to Columbus to perfect his talents at Ohio State under the Buckeyes’ legendary Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Snyder coached track and field at OSU for more than three decades, mentoring athletes who set 14 world records, won 52 All-American certifications, and brought home eight gold medals. Owens was without question the greatest of his coaching progeny, accounting for four of those eight medals, all at the 1936 Olympiad in Berlin.
Race’s writers (Anna Waterhouse & Joe Shrapnel) and director (Stephen Hopkins) deserve high marks for maintaining taut dramatic tension in retelling a story the outcome of which is a foregone conclusion. While Owens is being honed to perfection under Snyder’s guiding hand, U.S. Olympic Committee heavyweights Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) battle it out about whether America should boycott the Games in light of Nazi human rights violations. Then, following a narrow vote in favor of competing, Owens is depicted as placed under severe pressure by the NAACP to engage in a personal boycott for the cause of racial equality. Of course, we know America competed and we know that Owens triumphed. Still, the high drama of both decisions engages us all these 80 years hence.
Likewise, the Games themselves are engaging. My assumption is that the screenwriters embellished the history with histrionics for the sake of a good cinematic yarn. But, if so, the end justifies the means. European actor/director Barnaby Metschurat renders a chilling low-key Joseph Goebbels. When told by Brundage, following Owens’s first gold medal in the dash, that Hitler should congratulate all the winners, Goebbels replies in precise German, “Does he think the Fuehrer will shake hands with that?”
Another fine European performer, Carice Van Houten, gives us a charming and bold portrayal of Leni Reifenstahl, the filmmaker who directed iconic movies about the rise of the Third Reich. She is depicted as defying Goebbels during the film’s climax, when the latter bullies Brundage into pulling a pair of American Jews from the 400-meter relay. The American coaches substitute Owens for the opening leg and Reifenstahl films the black athlete’s fourth triumph of the Games in direct disobedience to Goebbels’s decree.
The difficulties of Owens’s later life, due in no small part to his race, are encapsulated in a final scene in which, arriving to attend a banquet in his honor some years after the ’36 Olympics, he is told to use the hotel’s service entrance. Probably apocryphal, the snippet still sums up the tragedy of America’s early athletes of color, such as Thorpe and Owens - not to mention the great baseball players of the Negro League - who were more than good enough to go abroad and bring home the gold, but not good enough to enjoy the same “hero” status and affluence accorded to their white teammates and competitors.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language.
Dr. Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia lawyer, consultant and writer, whose webpage is https://jamescastagnera.wordpress.com/. His most recent book is Handbook for Student Law for Higher Education Administrators (Revised Edition 2014).