Jesse Owens takes the 1936 Olympics by storm
Owens took home four gold medals and records over six days
The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin were the birth of the modern games as we know them. The six-day event was the first to be broadcast and the first to hold the ceremonial torch relay. But these were also the games Adolf Hitler expected to showcase his superior Aryan race. The 1936 Olympics were a display and infusion of extreme nationalism and politics.
Jesse Owens must not have gotten that memo. On this day 80 years ago, the all-around track-and-field superstar showed out at the games, putting on a clinic in front of the host citizens and Hitler. At the time, Owens was only 22 years old when he won gold in the 100-, 200- and 4×100-meter relays and long jump.
Although Germany, with its 348 athletes, took home the most medals overall, Owens and the United States dominated track and field, the most popular sport of the event. The Ohio State University alumnus equaled the 100-meter world record (10.3 seconds) and set the world records in the 200 meter (20.7) and broad jump (26 feet 5 1/4 inches).
While it has been widely reported that Hitler snubbed Owens specifically and became enraged by the African-American’s success at the games, Owens received the largest ovation of any opposing athlete by the German spectators, Jeremy Schaap wrote in Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics.
Hitler, whose one-party dictatorship, anti-Semitic rhetoric and policies directly led to the deaths of 6 million Jewish people and nearly 60 million overall, was told after the first day of the games that he couldn’t just shake the hands of German participants. He had to be a neutral party at the Olympics and shake the hands of all the winners or none at all. He chose to shake none of the winners’ hands.
But Owens wasn’t fazed, according to Schaap.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” Owens told the New York World-Telegram’s Grantland Rice. “I suppose Mr. Hitler is much too busy a man to stay there forever. After all, he’d been there most of the day. Anyway, he did wave in my direction as he left the field and I sort of felt he was waving at me. I didn’t bother about it one way or the other.” While Owens continued to deny that there had been a snub, it remained a dominant theme in the papers back home.
In Washington, Shirley Povich of the Washington Post was among the many who had decided to cast Owens’ victory as nothing less than the triumph of good over evil. “Hitler declared Aryan supremacy by decree,” Povich wrote, “but Jesse Owens is proving him a liar by degrees.”
So while there is no damning and concrete evidence that Hitler discriminated against Owens and the other African-American athletes participating in the games, the German media was another story. With each victory, the media’s disdain and resentment of the black participants’ success became apparent.
“In particular, Der Angriff (The Attack) lived up to its name,” Schaap said. “‘If America didn’t have her black auxiliaries, where would she be in the Olympic Games?’ Der Angriff asked after Owens won the broad jump. Conceding that the Americans were likely to continue to win medals, the paper petulantly pointed out.”
On Feb. 19, Race, the biographical sports film about Owens plight at the 1936 Olympics, was released in theaters. It was the first feature-length film about the track star.
Owens retired after the 1936 Summer Games and worked with underprivileged children in both Cleveland and Chicago. His four gold medals in a single Olympics went unmatched until 1984, when Carl Lewis matched his medal count at the Los Angeles Games.
In 1976, President Gerald Fold presented Owens with the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and three years later, President Jimmy Carter awarded him the Living Legend Award. Owens would die the next year from complications of lung cancer in Arizona.
Carter encapsulated Owens life beautifully in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter, 1979: “A young man who possibly didn’t even realize the superb nature of his own capabilities went to the Olympics and performed in a way that I don’t believe has ever been equaled since … and since this superb achievement, he has continued in his own dedicated but modest way to inspire others to reach for greatness.”