Owens falsely accused in Hitler Games book

Randall Northam continues our series of reviews of the short-list for this year’s Sports Book of the Year Award

If you take on the icons of sport you had better be on firm ground. Unfortunately, Guy Walters, author of Berlin Games: How Hitler stole the Olympic dream, is not when criticising Jesse Owens and Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

His book, which was on the shortlist for the 2006 William Hill Sports Book of the Year, is a rollocking and riveting read about the events leading up to the 1936 Olympic Games. But he should have checked his facts before writing about athletes as revered as Owens.

And while de Coubertin is fair game, Walters doesn’t prove – to me – that the founder of the International Olympic Committee (note the qualification; I don’t want people writing to me about Olympic or Olympick Games being held in the 1800s long before de Coubertin’s Athens Games in 1896) was corrupt.

We knew already that the 1936 German Olympic chief Lewald had offered the Baron money not to interfere in the Nazi’s determination to shape the Games in their own style. But nobody knows if he took the bribe. Walters says he does, but he doesn’t back it up with conclusive proof.

And while Walters debunks the myth that Owens was snubbed by Hitler (again, hardly something new), he goes on to malign the great sprinter-long jumper.

He says that Owens refused to compete for the American Athletic Union (the US track and field governing body in those days) in Sweden after the Games and thus was thrown out of the AAU by the despicable Avery Brundage, who comes out of the book as a self serving, greedy manipulator (Walters is quite right there).

While it is true that Owens refused to compete in Sweden, the book makes it seem as if that was the only meeting the AAU had after the Olympic Games and that Owens wanted to capitalise financially on his gold medals.

But the truth, not reflected in this short-listed book, is that it was Brundage who wanted to recoup the costs of taking the team to Germany and he thus embarked on a post-Olympics tour of Europe that was exhausting for many members of the US team. Owens competed in four meetings, ending up running a leg of the 4 x100-yards relay at London’s White City.

When Owens and his coach Larry Snyder realised the tour was continuing to Sweden, Norway and Finland, they decided Owens was too tired. They may have thought of cashing in on some of the offers, but he had, after all, won four gold medals in Berlin which meant eight races and a qualifying and final in the long jump.

There are other small mistakes and assertions that had the publishers or author given the manuscript to an Olympic or athletics specialist would not have had people like me spluttering as they turned the pages.

For instance, it is not the “British AAA” or “the UK AAA”. Never has been. It is the Amateur Athletic (note, not athletics) Association. If you have to pin a country to it you have to pin England.

And while I’m nitpicking, to say that Owens’ 200 metres time of 20.7sec was “only” 0.4sec slower than his world record shows a lack of basic sports knowledge. It is like saying a football team won “only” 5-0. Even basic arithmetic suggests that 0.4sec is a difference of around four metres. Four metres is an enormous margin by which to win the 200 metres. Remember Michael Johnson in Atlanta? He beat Frankie Fredericks by 0.36sec. Out of sight.

Walters also doesn’t mention (or I suspect doesn’t know) that the 200 metres record of 20.3 to which he referred was for a straight run. In 1936, there were no world records for 200 metres around a turn.

Further, Walters has Owens equalling the 100 metres world record of 10.3sec in the Olympic final, which is correct. But the author doesn’t mention that Owens had run 10.2sec in Chicago that June which was awaiting ratification.

Then there’s the account of Owens’ amazing afternoon at Ann Arbor in 1935 when he broke six world records. Walters has him breaking four – the long jump, the 220 yards, the 100 yards and the 220 yards hurdles. Walters doesn’t mention that he broke the 200 metres and 200 metres hurdles on his way in the latter two events.

If you are going to write a book which focuses so closely on one of the greatest athletics feats in history, then you might be expected to get the detail spot on. Even if Walters had asked, say, Peter Matthews or Mel Watman to look at his manuscript, these things would have been avoided.

That apart, Walters is on the side of the good guys. He is suitably affronted by the way the Olympic movement squirmed when faced with the indisputable fact that the Nazis were discriminating against Jews and other minorities. Brundage, later president of the IOC, in particular, was culpable. But so were the British.

The one thing I’d like to know is why this book and not the other two on the Berlin Games which were published in the past year made it on to the awards shortlist.

I don’t know whether the publishers of Chistopher Hilton’s Hitler’s Olympics: The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (Sutton Publishing) or Hitler’s Olympics: The Story of the 1936 Nazi Games (Pen & Sword Military) by Anton Rippon submitted their books to William Hill, but if they didn’t, then that’s another weakness of the awards.

Read Randall Northam’s review of Paul Rambali’s Barefoot Runner here

Read our report on the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award here

Read Peter Wilson’s review of Anton Rippon’s book on the 1936 Games here.