American Ideas About Race and Olympic Races

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American Ideas about Race and Olympic Races from the 1890s to the 1950s: Shattering Myths or Reinforcing Scientific Racism? Mark Dyreson† DEPARTMENTS OF KINESIOLOGY AND HISTORY THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY At the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin Jesse Owens won four gold medals. For American civilization, his feats represented more than just an exceptional athletic performance. His triumphs provided data. The data—as a host of observers including W. Montague Cobb, the only African American to hold a doctorate in physical anthropology in the first half of the twentieth century,1 understood—required explanation.2 Some Americans interpreted the data as shattering Nazi myths of Aryan racial superiority. Some believed the data would hasten the integration of American society. Some even hoped it signaled the begin- ning of the end of American racism. Others interpreted the data as proof that the United States actually enjoyed practical racial equality—contrary to social realities. †The author would like to thank David Wiggins, Patrick Miller, and Steven Pope for their criticisms and encouragement on earlier drafts of this manuscript. He would also like to thank the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University for providing fellowship support and access to rare sources that were invaluable in this study. Several insightful thinkers pointed out that while Owens’ runs and jumps supposedly annihilated Nazi racial ideology, they had little impact on American versions of white supremacist philosophy. Some observers explained Owens’ victories through the entrenched racist paradigms of the 1930s. Allegedly less-evolved than European Americans and thus closer to “nature,” African Americans were supposed to be better in “unthinking” physical competitions than “brighter” whites. Dean Cromwell, who coached Owens and other

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