The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin was Adolf Hitler’s opportunity to showcase Nazi Germany to the world and in particular to promote his ideals of Aryan racial supremacy, through sport. Perversely, the Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger” did not sound out of place from the Nazi propaganda being spread at the time.
The German athletes certainly lived up to Hitler’s expectations as they comfortably topped the medals table, winning a total of 89 medals, 33 of which were gold. Despite this, the star athlete of the Games was not a German, but an African-American by the name of Jesse Owens whose four gold medals shattered the Nazi fallacy of Aryan supremacy. As a result Hitler refused to shake his hand, or so the tale goes. Owens was snubbed but not necessarily by Hitler because as is usually the case, history is written (and edited) by the victors. Owens was just as badly treated by his home nation.
James Cleveland Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama on 12 September 1913. At the age of nine, J.C. and his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. When asked his name by his new teacher, she misheard J.C. as “Jesse”, due to the young man’s strong southern drawl. And thus, from that day on, J.C. would be known as Jesse for the rest of his life.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics
Owens set the Berlin Games alight winning four gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4 x 100m relay, and long jump. He ran 10.3 seconds in the 100m, defeating fellow American Ralph Metcalfe by one-tenth of a second. The next day, on 4 August, Owens won the long jump with 8.06 m, beating Luz Long, an archetypal blue-eyed blonde German, into second.
While Hitler was determined for Germany to exert its ethnic superiority, its athletes were, for the most part, honest athletes used as pawns to forward the party’s agenda. One such athlete is Luz Long.
Long started the long jump strong, setting an Olympic record in the preliminary rounds. In contrast, Owens was struggling, fouling his first two jumps. He required a jump of least 7.15m on his final attempt to advance to that afternoon’s finals. Owens, according to Long’s son, was approached by his father. Long, noticing Owens was easily jumping past the required 7.15m, advised Owens to jump from a spot a few inches behind the take-off board. This advice steadied Owens, who qualified for the finals.
During the final, both men exceeded the previous Olympic record five times. Owens emerged victorious. Long was the first to congratulate Owens. They posed for photographs and walked arm-in-arm into the dressing room. Speaking about Long in later years, Owens said:
It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler… You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.
On 5 August, Owens won the 200m with a time of 20.7 s, beating Mack Robinson (the older brother of baseball’s racial-barrier-breaker Jackie) into second. Four days later, Owens was a member of the 4 x 100m relay winning team alongside Ralph Metcalfe, Frank Wykoff and Foy Draper. They set a world record of 39.8 s in the process.
Owens only gained a place in the relay team because U.S. coaches removed two Jewish members, Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman from team. It has never been established if there were removed due to favouritism, as Draper and Wykoff were coached by one of the U.S. track coach’s assistants at college, or because having two Jews and two black members on a winning team would cause Hitler embarrasment and so U.S. officials appeased him.
Hitler did personally snub a black athlete but it wasn’t Jesse Owens. On the first day of the Games, an African-American Cornelius Johnson had won the United States’ first gold medal, in the high jump. However Hitler had left the Olympiastadion early and did not congratulate Johnson. Before his departure, he had received and congratulated a number of German winners earlier in the day. Hitler was informed by Olympic officials, in one of the few instances where they stood up to him, that he must receive every winner in future or none at all. Hitler opted for the latter option. Therefore Owens was only one of many not to be congratulated by the Chancellor. Owens was personally snubbed, though, and it was by his own President of all people.
Owens is quoted as saying, at a Republican Party rally in Baltimore in October 1936:
Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me. I am not knocking the President. Remember, I am not a politician, but remember that the President did not senf me a message of congratulations because, people said, he was too busy.
Owens, despite being the star U.S. athlete in Berlin, never received an invitation to the White House nor a letter of congratulations from either Franklin D. Roosevelt or his successor Harry S. Truman. After Berlin every white athlete was invited to meet with Roosevelt, no such invitation was extended to any of the black athletes. It wasn’t until 1955 that Owens was officially honoured by a U.S. President when he was named an ambassador of sports by Dwight D. Eisenhower.
After his heroics in Berlin, Owens returned to a tickertape parade in New York City but was refused entry through the front door of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel where a reception was being held in his honour. The fastest man in the world had to ride the freight elevator to attend his own party, such was the racial discrimination in the United States at the time.
Owens also suffered at the hands of the U.S. Olympic Committee. After the Olympics the U.S. team were invited to compete in Sweden but Owens decided to return home in order to capitalise upon his success and take up some of the lucrative commercial offers. This angered U.S. athletic officials and the repulsive Avery Brundage, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee and future IOC president, ensured he was stripped of his amateur status; thereby ending his athletics career. Owens’s potential endorsements also went by the wayside.
Owens died in March 1980 at the age of 66. His exploits in Berlin are still fondly recalled to this day and inspired a great many future athletes, including Carl Lewis who notably emulated his gold in the same four events at the 1984 L.A. Games. Owens was like a great artist, unvalued during his lifetime. And it was only when he was gone that the sheer enormity of his accomplishments garnered him the respect and status he truly deserved.