80 years ago today, on August 9, 1936, Jesse Owens made world history and became an icon of racial equality when he took his 4th Gold at the Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin. Owens won his first Gold on the 2nd, beating fellow African-American Ralph Metcalfe in the 100 meter dash. On the 3rd and the 5th of August, he took personal Golds again, in the long jump and 200 meters, respectively. His race on the 9th was the 4×100 meter relay, when he and Metcalfe were subbed for the Jewish-American runners Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman in a controversial decision. Together with Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff, Owens and Metcalfe set a world record that would stand for 20 years. It would be nearly 50 years before another American sprinter tied Owens’ Gold-medals-in-a-single-Olympics record, when Carl Lewis took Gold in the same 4 events in 1984. That tie still stands.* Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt has smashed many of Lewis’s records—but not that one. In Rio, Bolt is set to compete in the same events that he competed in—and won—in 2008 and 2012: the 100m (August 13), the 200m (August 16), and the 4x100m relay (August 18). Whatever happens, he won’t take 4 Golds.
I am not an expert on track-and-field (I probably don’t even qualify as an amateur enthusiast), but I love to watch it, and I look forward to the summer Olympics every year (I also love swimming). MIRC’s Fox Movietone News Collection has many sports stories, but my personal favorite is Fox Movietone News Story 21-261: “National Indoor Championships—outtakes.”
Filmed at the February 1934 Amateur Athletic Union Track and Field Championships by Al Gold (who also caught the Hindenburg disaster), “National Indoor Championships—outtakes” consists of raw statements by several of the competitors at Madison Square Garden that day. It is a charming piece, capturing the nervousness of the young competitors in the literal shadows of the sports journalists behind the camera.
Owens (age 20) is probably the most famous today. He is second to appear, and shows more confidence than some of his peers, declaring, “It is the ambition of every athlete to break the world’s record, of which I was fortunate enough to do tonight in the running broad [long] jump with a leap of 25 feet 3 and 1/8th inches.” Owens’ most impressive display of athleticism would come a year later, when he set 3 world records and tied a 4th in the space of 45 minutes at the 1935 Big Ten Championships. (In contrast, Olympic athletes have at least a day’s break, and sometimes more, between events.)
Charles “Chuck” Hornbostel (22), a middle-distance runner who would go on to take 5th in the 800m at the Berlin Olympics, appears before Owens, noting gravely, “the calibre of athletes was much higher than the average.” John Collier (26), who coincidentally shared a birthday with Hornbostel, appears after Owens. Collier competed in the 110m hurdles at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, but notes with pride that the 1934 indoor championships marked his first national title “in a long career in running.” He speaks seriously, but flashes a smile after someone behind the camera (perhaps Al Gold?) makes an inaudible joke.
Owens’ friend and rival—and future US Congressmen (D-Illinois)—Ralph Metcalfe (23) appears fourth. Metcalfe is introduced as “the famous Ralph Metcalfe” and flubs his first take, claiming to have won the 60 yard, rather than meter, dash. Metcalfe was better known than Owens in ’34, having already taken Silver in the 200m at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics in a race many said he should have tied. Metcalfe’s time was recorded at 10.3 seconds, the same as that of official winner Eddie Tolan (another very fine African-American sprinter of the 1930s). Metcalfe would Silver again in ’36, losing that time to Owens. Tolan did not compete in the Berlin Olympics because he lost his amateur status after a brief Vaudeville career. Owens would also run afoul of the regulations surrounding amateur sport—a reminder that amateurism could be economically, and by extension racially, discriminatory.
Milton Sandler follows Metcalfe in the Fox film. More obscure than the other athletes on the reel, Sandler is nevertheless a delight to watch. Wearing a uniform that would seem at place in a mid-century space opera, he cheerfully stumbles through the statement, “I must owe my allegiance to Coach Greenwald.” Sandler won the 600m at the Indoor Track & Field Championships in 1933, 1934, and 1935.
Next, Avery Brundage, a passionate defender of amateurism who would go on to serve 20 years as Olympic Commissioner, awards the 1933 James E. Sullivan Medal to another all-time great of track-and-field, Glenn Cunningham (24). Cunningham placed 5th in the 1500 at the Amsterdam Olympics, broke the world record in the mile in 1934, and Silvered in Berlin. He also held a world record for the 800m. All of this with only 7 toes and 1 good arch: Cunningham’s legs were terribly burned in a childhood accident that left him unable to walk, let alone run, for two years. Although he desperately wanted to break the 4 minute mile, he never did (that honor went instead to Roger Bannister in 1954). Cunningham was, however, the last American to set a world record in the mile for decades, until fellow University of Kansas runner Jim Ryun set it consecutively in 1966 and 1967.
The last two athletes to appear in the newsreel (separated by a brief flash of Cunningham posing with his medal) are pole vaulter Bill Graber (22) and high jumper Walter Marty (23). Graber was another reigning world champion in 1934, and a charmer behind thick eyebrows on camera. His July 1932 record vault of 4.37m stood for 3 years. Although he competed in both the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, he failed to medal each time. Marty, a Western roll high jumper and brief world record holder, is sweetly nervous as he talks about his rival George Spitz, who practiced a variation on the classic scissors technique. After several takes, Marty drifts off, plaintively raising his eyebrows, and turns away. He appears again briefly in one final shot that was probably aborted by Gold—but maybe, just maybe, instead resulted in a clean take that was trimmed out for use by Fox.
*The international record for most Gold medals in track-and-field is held neither by an American, nor a sprinter. In 1924, Finn and long-distance-runner Paavo Nurmi took 5. At the same games in Paris, fellow Finn and long-distance-runner Vilho Ritola set the record for most track-and-field medals in a single Olympics, winning 4 Golds and 2 Silvers. Although I have yet to find Ritola, Nurmi features in several Fox stories. For example, “Paavo Nurmi arrives in airplane—outtakes” shows him disembarking in Berlin for the International Sporting Festival, and “Track and field meet—outtakes” shows him competing in Los Angeles, part of his 1925 American tour.
~Written by MIRC Director Heather Heckman