The role and influence of sports in society has long sparked debate. The decision of whether to boycott the 1936 Olympic Games weighed heavily on African American athletes in the US. They faced racism at home and then had to decide whether to represent the US in Germany dominated by racist dictatorship.
Opportunities for blacks were limited in both college and professional sports. Journalists were quick to point out the fight against discrimination of athletes abroad, but did not address the problem of discrimination against athletes at home.
The African American athletes who competed in the 1936 Olympics won 14, including Jesse Owens’ four gold medals.
Upon returning home, African American athletes faced the same discriminatory policies as before. Even winning medals for one’s country did not immediately change societal attitudes towards African Americans.
Soon after Adolf Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, observers in the United States and other western democracies questioned the morality of supporting Olympic Games hosted by the Nazi regime.
The International Olympic Committee obtained a pledge from the German Olympic committee in June 1933 that Germany would abide by the Olympic Charter. The charter banned all discrimination in sport. With concerns about the safety of black athletes in Nazi Germany thus put to rest, most African American newspapers opposed boycotting the 1936 Olympic Games.
Writers for such papers as the Philadelphia Tribune and the Chicago Defender argued that victories by black athletes would undermine racism and the emphasis on "Aryan" supremacy found in Nazi racial views. They also hoped that such victories would foster a new sense of black pride at home. The Chicago Defender reported, on December 14, 1935, that African American track stars Eulace Peacock, Jesse Owens, and Ralph Metcalfe favored participating in the Olympics because they felt that their victories would serve to repudiate Nazi racial theories. (An injury would prevent Peacock from participating.)
In 1936 a large number of black athetes were Olympic contenders, and in the end, 18 African Americans—16 men and 2 women—went to Berlin. This was three times the number who had competed in the 1932 Los Angeles games. The difference reflected the migration of blacks to northern cities beginning in the 1910s and the growing interest of northern colleges in recruiting black athletes.
High jump, silver
High jump, gold
400-meter run, bronze
4x100-meter relay, gold
100-meter dash, silver
100-meter dash, gold
200-meter dash, gold
Broad (long) jump, gold
4x100-meter relay, gold
Frederick Pollard, Jr.
110-meter hurdles, bronze
200-meter dash, silver
400-meter run, gold
Bantamweight boxing, silver
800-meter run, gold
For the black athletes, the Olympics provided a special opportunity. In the 1930s, blacks suffered discrimination in most areas of American life. "Jim Crow" laws, designed by whites to keep blacks powerless and segregated, barred African Americans from many jobs and from entering public places such as restaurants, hotels, and other facilities. In the South especially, blacks lived in fear of racially motivated violence. The United States military was still segregated during World War II.
In the area of sports, opportunities for blacks were limited at both the college and professional levels. Black journalists criticized supporters of the Olympic boycott for talking so much about discrimination against athletes in foreign lands but not addressing the problem of discrimination against athletes at home. They pointed out that all the black Olympians came from northern universities that served mostly white students. They said that this showed the inferiority of training equipment and facilities at traditionally black colleges, where most African American students were educated in the 1930s.
The African American athletes who competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin won 14 medals. The continuing social and economic discrimination black athletes faced after returning to the United States showed that even winning medals for one’s country did not immediately change anything. Because the Nazi regime had so well camouflaged their state-sanctioned racism, some black athletes ironically commented that they had felt more welcomed in Berlin than at home.
“When I came back, after all those stories about Hitler... I came back to my native country, and I could not ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. Now what's the difference?” – American Olympic athlete Jesse Owens
Still, the victories of Owens and others were a source of great pride for African Americans and inspired future black Olympians. These were beginning steps in the slow progress toward equal opportunities for all Americans regardless of skin color.