Review of 'In Black and White', Donald McRae, Scribner £18.99
Books about sporting celebrities rarely capture the attention of socialists, and perhaps rightly so. The vast majority are instantly forgettable chronicles of 'glory days' ghost-written for performers with no obvious talents beyond their speed, strength, stamina or agility.
There are, of course, some honourable exceptions. CLR James's 'Beyond a Boundary', which examines the role of cricket in colonial West Indies, is a good example. The appeal of these books is that they do not simply rerun sporting events. Rather they seek to examine the contradictory role that sport plays in society. The Olympic Games or football World Cup are spectacles that provide genuine excitement and pleasure to the watching public. At the same time they are major capitalist jamborees producing huge profits for the organisers and sponsors.
Donald McRae's 'Dark Trade' was a thoughtful insight into the psychology of boxing. He has repeated the trick with 'In Black and White', which chronicles the lasting friendship between Jesse Owens and Joe Louis and the discrimination faced by a generation of black sports stars.
McRae's starting point was the revelation that Owens, the reigning Olympic sprint champion, had once run against and lost to Louis, the heavyweight boxing champion. He discovered that the lives of these two great athletes had followed a remarkably similar trajectory. Born within months of each other to black Alabama sharecroppers, they both died at the age of 66. Similarly, the moments of their greatest sporting triumphs were fuelled with racial and political connotations.
Owens's tale is perhaps the more famous. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in a stadium bedecked with swastikas and in the presence of Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and a crowd of 100,000, he ran and jumped his way into sporting legend with a set of performances that won him four gold medals and humiliated his hosts. Two years later Louis achieved his finest victory in an extraordinary fight against the German boxer Max Schmeling.
Black Power at the Olympics
The US media and politicians were quick to spot the propaganda potential of these victories. Yet even at this time their racism and hypocrisy was palpable. When describing Owens the US Olympic sprint coach suggested that 'the Negro athlete excels because he is closer to the primitive than the white athlete. It is not so long ago that his ability to sprint and jump was life and death to him in the jungle.' Similarly, after Louis's first major victory in 1936, one journalist reported, 'Something sly and sinister and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle tonight to strike down Primo Carnera...'
Within weeks of his Olympic feats, Owens's career was in tatters. His mistake had been to turn professional and seek some financial reward for the talents that others had been so willing to exploit. The race against Louis was a fix, with Owens stumbling theatrically to defeat as planned by the sponsors. And yet it must be regarded as one of his lesser humiliations. By this stage he was more used to racing against greyhounds and horses than human beings. Louis's career lasted longer and the material rewards he received were better. Ultimately however, hangers-on and the taxman gobbled his wealth up, while Louis ended his days addicted to drugs and incarcerated in psychiatric institutions.
McRae does not portray Owens or Louis as great rebels or political activists. What he does is restore their dignity and humanity. He does the same for their competitors and the ordinary Germans that witnessed Owens' legendary performance. In the midst of the long jump competition, Owens's German opponent Lutz Long offered advice that helped Owens to beat him into second place, and the rivals shared a warm embrace in the moment of Owens's victory. Theirs was to prove a lasting friendship. Meanwhile the watching crowd defied their Nazi rulers and saluted Owens's victories not with a stiff arm, but with a crescendo of adulation.
As McRae's outstanding book shows, and as the defiant examples of Muhammad Ali refusing to serve in Vietnam and the athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics also illustrate, some of the most vivid episodes in sporting history are ones from which we can draw inspiration.