The 1936 Berlin Olympics is perhaps most memorable for the legendary performance of African-American sprinter Jesse Owens. Owens won four gold medals in Berlin, supposedly smashing the Nazi myth of Aryan dominance right in front of Adolf Hitler himself. It’s frequently remarked that Hitler shook hands with Owens in recognition of his achievements, although this is without definite proof. But in a way, Owens didn’t destroy the notion of white supremacy in athletics – he in fact represents a more veiled way of upholding this supremacy.
According to the memoirs of Albert Speer, the Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production, the Fuhrer “was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games”. Essentially, this is a harsher way of stating an idea that still exists in sports today: Black athletes are dominant because they are physically larger, stronger and faster, and are given less credit for intelligence, while white athletes succeed in spite of being physically weaker because they are smarter, work harder and possess better “fundamentals”. For example: the website Deadspin in 2014 created a tool that analyzed NFL Draft scouting reports. Some striking findings: the word “smart” was used three times as often for white players than for black players, “intelligent” four times as often, and “gritty” seven times as often.
Also glaring: as of 2016, around 70% of NFL players were African-American. But at quarterback, usually seen as the most cerebral and mentally demanding position, this percentage is basically reversed: the vast majority of starting quarterbacks in the NFL are white, while only six current starting quarterbacks are black, even though black quarterbacks have proven themselves just as much at the highest level: a recent example being Cam Newton, who in 2015 led the Carolina Panthers to 17 wins and a Super Bowl appearance while winning the Most Valuable Player award. And African-Americans dominate at “skill positions” more reliant on athleticism such as running back, wide receiver or defensive back at even higher numbers – there hasn’t been a white cornerback in the NFL since 2004.
From these numbers, some truths about racial stereotyping are revealed. We have always viewed sports through a racial lens and still do, while maybe to a slightly lesser degree – different races have different abilities when it comes to athletics. But supremacy comes into play in describing black athletes as relying on their physical attributes: strength, how fast one can run, or how high one can jump aren’t qualities that can be taught – they were given instead by nature. On the other hand skills such as “fundamentals”, understanding of the game, and mental toughness are generally consciously acquired.Describing qhite and black athletes in these different terms perpetuates a notion of black people as being more animalistic and closer to nature.