Jesse Owens wasn’t the only black athlete who excelled at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This group portrait honors the others who helped prove Hitler wrong about white superiority in sports.
Eighteen African American athletes—16 men and 2 women—competed at the Berlin Olympics, all overshadowed by Owens’ spectacular victories. Without neglecting the star runner and long jumper, this companion to a 2016 movie celebrates the other black members of the American team, most of whom competed in track and field events. As director Draper and veteran author Thrasher (American Omens: The Coming Fight for Faith: A Novel, 2019, etc.) show, many had overcome towering obstacles, including poverty, segregation, and pressure from black newspapers to boycott the Olympics. Whatever their challenges, the 17 lesser-known athletes stayed focused in Berlin, won 10 medals in addition to Owens’ four golds, and helped lay to rest Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy in sports. The authors describe competitors like 400-meter dash gold medalist Archie Williams in undemanding, present-tense prose well suited to a young adult audience: “Archie knows going back to school is a good thing. He will be bettering himself and not sitting around the house and getting into trouble.” This approach will hearten booksellers and librarians looking for inspiring, easy-to-read sports books for teenagers, but adult readers may be put off by oversimplified characterizations of Hitler and others: “The Nazi leader has no desire to race or compete. His idea of competition is to defeat his enemies or to make sure they can never line up against him in the first place.” Anyone seeking more complex nonfiction about U.S. athletes’ challenges in Berlin will find it in Daniel James Brown’s bestselling The Boys in the Boat or Andrew Maraniss’ recent young adult book Games of Deception.
A decent meal for sports-loving teenagers looking for role models but a thin soup for adults.