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Blair Underwood: Trials, triumphs of black Olympians

Los Angeles (CNN) – They’ve fled war and poverty and been forced to abandon their homes. Hidden among the nearly 20-million refugees worldwide are some world-class athletes.

Now, for the first time, a team made up of entirely refugees will compete in the Rio Summer Games this August — competing under the Olympic flag.

The Olympic Games has often paved a pathway from trial to triumph.

Eighty years ago, a group of African-American athletes left a U.S. divided by race to compete in a Germany torn by Aryan supremacy.

Many have heard the stories of Jesse Owens — “the fastest man in the world” — at the 1936 Berlin Games. But there were 17 other black American Olympians who felt the weight of their race on their shoulders.

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Olympic Pride, American Prejudice LLC

Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” tells the story of those African-Americans getting to Berlin and their unceremonious return home.

The film’s executive producer, director and writer, Deborah Riley Draper and executive producer and narrator of the documentary, Blair Underwood, joined “CNN Newsroom L.A.” to talk about the courage of those athletes and what their success ultimately meant for black people in the U.S.

Deborah Riley Draper: “I think it was a tremendous amount of resolve. These are athletes who spent their whole careers training. So the opportunity to go represent themselves, their race and their country in the middle of Nazi Germany was tremendous. That speaks to the courage of them as athletes and as people. The story — what’s remarkable about it — is that they didn’t have the rights in America but they represented America proudly and gracefully and they stood on the medal stands and collected points for our country.”

John Vause: “They received no real honors when they came home. It was all about Jesse Owens. But do you think, in a way, them simply going there and competing — did they pave the way for civil rights activists like Martin Luther King?”

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Olympic Pride, American Prejudice LLC

Blair Underwood: “They absolutely paved the way because this was a non-violent kind of civil rights movement in and of itself — just by showing up. When I was ten-years-old, my dad said to me, ‘As a young African-American man, as a young black boy, your presence is a political statement.’ I never forgot that. By the same token, by these athletes showing up and competing and succeeding they won hearts and they won medals. That’s what’s fascinating about this story — because you’re talking about people who left Jim Crow America to go to Nazi Germany. Yes, there was a Nazi regime that had a certain mandate of how to treat these people — but the German people embraced them.”

Vause: “One of the big races is the 400 meters. It’s an incredibly difficult race. It’s in the documentary. Archie Williams of the U.S. won the race and James LuValle finished third. These were young kids on foreign soil. What can their experience teach people today about dealing with adversity?”

Riley Draper: “Think about this. Archie was at Berkeley and James LaValle was at UCLA. So grandchildren of sharecroppers were able to go to college — big Division I — break the color barrier in college, compete in front of Adolf Hitler, in front of the world, and really just slap intolerance out of the way — and really step on that and provide a pathway for athletes. So think about it, if these guys had not integrated at that moment, when would sports as we know it actually integrate?”

Vause: “We talked about not being recognized in the United States, but the whole world was watching these Games. Did they have an influence around the world?”

Riley Draper: “The stories that were written about them when we did our research — we found more footage in Europe than we found in America. So they were embraced and written about. Louise Stokes, the first African-American woman to represent the United States, was the most photographed woman at the 1936 Olympics. So they received recognition in a way they’d never experienced. That reinforced their confidence when they returned home. Whether they were recognized or not, in their own communities this bubbled up to a consciousness that allowed us to want more: more from ourselves, more from our country.”

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Olympic Pride, American Prejudice LLC

Vause: “They were trailblazers for Jackie Robinson and all the great athletes we see today. When they headed over there they shattered through a glass ceiling or a black ceiling or racial ceiling, if you will.”

Underwood: “They did. It’s ironic you mention Jackie Robinson because his brother Mack Robinson was one of those seventeen. So it’s very extraordinary.”

blair underwoodVause: “So if we didn’t have the 1936 Olympics with these seventeen extraordinary people it would have been so much harder for Jackie Robinson and even the black athletes that we see today.”

Underwood: “Yeah. You know, so often it’s the power of the idea. People have to get past the blockade they have in their own mind of what is acceptable. Mind you, the reason you had athletes running track and field was because it was not a contact sport. At that point, you wouldn’t want black people touching you on a basketball court or the football field. So it was all incremental, step-by-step progress.”

Vause: “When you started looking into this, did you think, ‘Wow, race relations in the U.S. were so awful back then, they’re going through a difficult time right now — but do you still think that there’s been a lot of progress made but maybe we still need another 17 courageous people to do what these guys did — to move things forward in this country again?”

Underwood: “You can’t deny the progress. It’s remarkable to hear about the refugee team (in the 2016 Rio Games). How do you look at refugees when you see them compete? All of a sudden, it’s a great equalizer.”

Vause: “That’s the thing about sport, isn’t it? Because everyone gets onto that field and you’re equal?”

Underwood: “Yes. You’re equal. And it humanizes people in a very basic, basic way.”

Vause: “Do you find that everyone cheered for Jesse Owens and then, suddenly, there was this kind of breakthrough in the culture or the mindset that, ‘Oh that’s not an African-American athlete, that’s an American athlete?”

Riley Draper: “Well, there was a lot of propaganda on both sides of the Atlantic in 1936. So this idea of Jessie being a patriot and a great American hero was acceptable in the press and in the mainstream press — but all 18 Americans, that was a lot to take at that moment in 1936.”

Vause: “And so that’s why they minimized it because they just wanted to focus on one athlete? They couldn’t deal with a whole lot of successful black athletes?”

Riley Draper: “Think about it, if you are a Southerner and you have businesses that are predicated upon Jim Crow — talking about the excellence and how incredible these African-Americans are, that kind of upends your whole Jim Crow theory, right?”

Vause: “When you look at how these athletes were treated back here in the United States — they were spat on and called horrific names — these days, people idolize LeBron James and other black athletes, so do you think, in some ways, the sporting world has moved way ahead of the rest of the society here?”

Underwood: “I would say, ‘Yes to that.’ Of course we’ve made strides in politics when you look at the White House and many arenas in the world. But when you look at sports, I think it’s almost always kind of consistently led the way. When you think about boxing, contact sports, it’s very objective, you know. Track and field. It’s very objective. You win or you lose.”

Riley Draper: “The gun goes off — you run.”

Underwood: “Or not.”

Produced by: Ben Bamsey for “CNN Newsroom L.A.

Blair Ben

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