The Olympic Games have never been immune from politics, and they certainly weren’t in 1936 when Berlin was the host city and Hitler sought to present the Third Reich in a flattering light. That the United States thwarted him is largely because of the Black athletes who receive their due in Deborah Riley Draper’s deft and comprehensive documentary OLYMPIC PRIDE, AMERICAN PREJUDICE. As the movie makes clear, racial politics played a major role, both domestically and abroad.
The film documents the efforts of the N.A.A.C.P. and Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York, among others, to boycott the Games. The hurdler Tidye Pickett and the sprinter Louise Stokes had reason to stay home, having endured racial indignities at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, but as Ralph Metcalfe Jr., son of the 1932 and ’36 Olympian, puts it on camera, the prevailing attitude was, “Let’s get over there and dust those Germans, who think they’re better than us.”
The 18 Black athletes, who experienced a celebrity in Berlin denied them in America, took home eight gold medals, four alone for the runner and media darling Jesse Owens. Some returned home to a bleak future; one was reduced to sweeping streets, using his Olympic jacket for warmth.
The villain here is Avery Brundage, the United States Olympic Association President, who trusted the Nazis’ vow to include a Jew on their team (they later reneged) and who dropped the American team’s two Jewish members before a track event Hitler attended. Carl Lewis and many other former Olympians testify to the fortitude and accomplishments of their predecessors, whose triumphs on the field portended the civil rights victories of future decades.