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As the Winter Olympics in South Korea approach, many have started to ask whether the Olympics are culturally relevant anymore or are just an archaic expression of nationalistic chest-beating. The Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia made $53 million in profits, but profit isn’t the kind of relevance we’re talking about. Nor are we talking about celebrating records broken, athletes tearfully detailing their personal sacrifices, or picturing all the smiling medal-adorned winners on Wheaties boxes.
We’re talking about the positive impact the Olympic Games could have on personal, social and political struggles in the U.S. and around the world. By that measure, the Olympics are more relevant than ever because, in the face of the rise of tyrants, the event is an opportunity to remind ourselves of the core values of the Games beyond aggressive flag-waving. It’s also an opportunity for athletes to express their opposition to the tyranny that is actively trying to stifle those values.
The gold standard for these values was set at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Adolf Hitler was obsessed with using the moment to promote the Nazi philosophy of Aryan superiority. Then along came a black man named Jesse Owens, the most successful Olympian that year, winning four track and field gold medals — “single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy,” according to the biography Triumph.
Hitler was so angered that he wanted blacks banned from future games. But the hero of this story — the man who embodies the Olympic spirit we so desperately need today — is not Owens. He’s not even American. He’s Luz Long, the German long-jumper.
After Owens fouled on his first two of three jumps, Long advised a distraught Owens to take off from farther behind the line because his jumps were enough to qualify. Owens followed the advice and eventually won gold, with Long winning silver. After Owens won, Long, in violation of Nazi protocol and Hitler’s specific rants, was the first to congratulate Owens. They embraced and walked to the dressing room arm in arm. Long’s version of taking a knee — but much more dangerous.
Owens later wrote, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler … You can melt down all the medals and cups I have, and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.” Owens and Long wrote to each other after the Olympics. But Long was killed in 1943. In his final letter to Owens, he asked Owens to seek out his son after the war and tell him “what times were like when we were not separated by war. Tell him how things can be between men on this earth.” And Owens did. He went to Germany in the 1960s and was best man at Long’s son’s wedding.
Before anyone gets feeling too patriotic about Owens’ victories, remember that upon returning home, he and the other 17 black athletes responsible for a quarter of U.S. medals were not invited to the White House by FDR. “Hitler didn’t snub me,” Owens said. “It was our president who snubbed me.” And one of Owens’ gold medals was the result of replacing two American Jewish runners so as not to further embarrass Hitler by having Jews win gold. Owens protested: “Coach, I’ve won my three gold medals. I’m tired. I’ve had it. Let Marty and Sam run.” The coach pointed at Owens and said, “You’ll do as you’re told.” The coaches demeaned both Jews and blacks, ironically during games meant to display the superiority of democracy over fascism.
What people most remember about the 1968 Olympics is when Tommie Smith and John Carlos, having medaled in the 200-meter race, raised their gloved fists during the national anthem in what Smith called “a human rights salute.” They were castigated by white Americans and kicked off the team. Even Owens criticized them. But in his 1972 book, I Have Changed, he wrote, “I realized now that militancy in the best sense of the word was the only answer where the black man was concerned, that any black man who wasn’t a militant in 1970 was either blind or a coward.”
So what’s an Olympic athlete to do in these days when tyrants like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump trample rights and threaten world peace? Some Americans, who prefer to avoid the distasteful truths, use sports, TV shows and movies as safe zones where entertainment can distract us from harsh realities. But we are way past safe zones now.
When the president of the United States tells 1,628 documented lies in 10 months, it is time to speak up against that tyranny. When thousands of women tell of systemic abuse by men in power, it is time to speak up against that tyranny. When 66 of the 964 people police killed in 2017 were unarmed, it is time to speak up against that tyranny. Those who oppose political expression during sports events also don’t like it when entertainers and artists break the fourth wall by using their platform at awards shows. The Golden Globes became relevant, not as a celebration that Sterling K. Brown became the first black man to win for best actor in a TV drama, or that Oprah Winfrey was the first black woman to win the Cecil B. DeMille Award, but because it was a platform to question why it took so damn long. Oprah’s passionate speech articulated our national frustration while inspiring our communal hope.
Art and athletics don’t occur in a vacuum; they are the harsh reflection of what society is and the hopeful projection of what it’s capable of becoming. In the coming Olympics, each athlete has the opportunity to fulfill his or her dreams while expanding the limitations of human capabilities. For those more interested in equality than in endorsements, in humanity more than hubris, it is also an opportunity to speak your truth.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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