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Olympic Solidarity and Controversy


"Friendships are born on the field of athletic strife and the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust." –Jesse Owens

In 1936 African American sprinter Jesse Owens amazed the world by breaking Olympic records and winning four gold medals in Berlin, the headquarters of Hitler's Nazi regime. However, in classic Olympic fashion, Owens became known not only for his athletic triumphs, but for his epic embrace with Aryan German competitor Luz Long and for the social barriers he broke down in the face of Hitler's Nazi regime. Rather than protesting "Hitler's Games," Owens used his position in the spotlight to display the greatness and compassion that can be achieved outside of the political and cultural constraints of society.

These are not random occurrences in Olympic history -- they are the defining moments through which one can view world history, politics, and humanity. The contrast between tensions often displayed between countries at the Olympics and solidarity between Olympians is a strong virtue of the Games that can be seen not only in Owens' case, but also throughout Olympic history.

Like many other stories from Olympic Games that took place in times of political or cultural strife, Jesse Owens' story is remarkable on its own. Still, it can be expanded to teach lessons about the general atmosphere of the Olympics as well as lessons about the cultural, social and political situation the world might be in as athletes gather to compete against and support one another every four years at the Olympics. Here are some of the most prominent Olympic controversies:

1908 - The Grand Duchy of Finland competes separately from the Russian Empire, and Ireland separately from Great Britain, but both breakaway groups are prohibited from displaying their respective flags.

1908 - John Taylor becomes the first African American athlete to win a gold medal.

1912 - A decathlon silver medalist refuses to accept his medal after the gold-medal winner was unjustly denied his medal.

1916 - Olympic Games are cancelled due to outbreak of World War I.

1919 - Location of 1920 Games is changed from Budapest to Antwerp to avoid affiliation with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the losers of World War I.

1920 - Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary and Turkey, the losers of World War I, are not invited to participate in the Olympic Games.

1932 - Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi is deemed ineligible to compete because he is considered a professional athlete. Despite his disqualification, Nurmi travels to the Olympic Village to continue training. In a display of solidarity, his peers in the Olympic marathon stand behind Nurmi and beg to have the ban against him lifted, but to no avail.

1936 - Debates arise around the world as to the morality of attending the Olympics in Berlin under the Nazi regime. Jesse Owens famously becomes the first African American athlete to win four gold medals. This feat was made even more famous as it was rumored to have infuriated Hitler, the proponent of an Aryan nation. Owens' visible camaraderie with German competitor Luz Long further intrigues the world.

1940 & 1944 - Olympic Games are cancelled due to World War II.

1948 - Germany and Japan are not invited to compete, while the Soviet Union opts not to attend, despite having been invited

1956 - During the infamous "Blood in the Water" match between Hungary and the Soviet Union, athletes and spectators at a water polo match turn violent due to the Soviet Union's recent invasion of Hungary.

1964 - South African athletes are banned from competing in the Olympics because of the widespread Apartheid in their country.

1968 - Two African American medalists perform the "Black Power" salute during the national anthem to symbolize black pride and unity in the face of racism. At the same time, Australian silver medalist Peter Norman stands in solidarity with his black co-medalists by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights.

1972 - Eleven Israeli athletes are taken hostage and then murdered by members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September in an attack related to the mounting tensions in the Middle East.

1980 - At the height of the Cold War's reawakening, 62 countries fail to attend the Olympics in Moscow, many out of protest over Russia's controversial invasion of Afghanistan.

What would you add to the list?

Jesse Owens premieres on PBS Tuesday, May 1, 2012.

Rose Just-Michael is a student at Brandeis University and an intern at AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.


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