Jesse Owens’ a-bomb against Hitler

Published 7:17 pm Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Anyone familiar with documentary film making would recognize immediately the name Leni Riefenstahl. She made Adolf Hitler into a Norse god in her film “Triumph of the Will,” which captured the rallies at Nuremberg in 1934.

Riefenstahl was a genius — the first to use modern movie making techniques.

She dug trenches in front of the stands outside at Nuremberg and put her cameramen in those ditches, forcing them to shoot up and make Hitler look taller.

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She also clothed her cameramen in Nazi uniforms to shoot inside the ranks without distracting the audience.

“Triumph of the Will” was a fantastic piece of propaganda, not repeated until the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Using similar techniques, including a car on a rail to track the movements of athletes, Riefenstahl’s mission was to produce another documentary celebrating Aryan supremacy.

The early portion of the film does just that — slow motion techniques not used widely in documentary film making showed the rippling muscles of a blonde discus thrower dressed to recall Greece and the early days of the Olympics.

But nobody could have predicted that Riefenstahl would include a clip of an American black man winning the long jump over German competitor Luz Long, ironically with advice from Long on how to negotiate the jump.

Thus died Hitler’s plan to use the Olympics that year as a way to show the German superiority over the auxiliaries, as the Nazis called black members of the U.S. Olympic team.

Jesse Owens, a native of Oakville, Ala., won four gold medals in track and field that year. His long jump set a world record that stood for a quarter century.

Hitler was told by the Olympic committee he would have to shake the hands of all medal winners if he shook those of German medal winners. Hitler refused.

No big splash. Owens came back without any largess or big contracts. He spent the rest of his life working with underprivileged children.

In a few days, this son of Alabama, who grew up in Ohio will receive honors in Berlin again at the stadium where he shook the myth of Aryan supremacy to its very core and during the world championships.

But most of us will remember the black and white footage of Owens in that propaganda film as the essence of a champion.