August 3, 1936– Jesse Owens wins Olympic Gold in the 100 Meters Race
In 1931, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 Summer Olympic Games to Berlin. The choice brought Germany’s return to the world community after its isolation in after defeat in WW I.
Two years later, Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany and quickly turned the nation’s fragile democracy into a one-party authoritarian government that persecuted Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, and all political opponents. The Nazi claimed control of all aspects of German life, including sports.
German imagery of the 1930s served to promote the myth of Aryan superiority and physical prowess. German artists idealized the country’s athletes’ muscles and heroic strength and accentuated their Aryan facial features.
In August 1936, Jesse Owens arrived in Berlin to compete for the USA in the Summer Olympics. Hitler was using the games to show the world his new Nazi Germany. Nazi propaganda promoted concepts of Aryan racial superiority and depicted Africans and people of African descent as being inferior. Owens countered this by winning four gold medals.
Most Americans assumed that black athletes would be treated badly in Berlin, but 100,000 Berliners chanted “Jes-say O-vens” as he won the 100 Meter race. Owens and his black teammates enjoyed freedom of movement and equality that they didn’t have in the USA.
International Olympic boycott movements had threatened the games. Consequently, the Olympic Village was integrated and all racist propaganda was suspended for the duration of the games. For those two weeks in August 1936, Hitler hid Germany’s racist, militaristic agenda while hosting the Summer Olympics, giving many foreign spectators and journalists an image of a peaceful, tolerant Germany.
Having rejected the idea of boycott of the 1936 Olympics, the USA missed the opportunity to take a stand that might have slowed Hitler’s policies and bolstered resistance to Nazi tyranny.
After the Games, Germany’s expansionist policies and the persecution of Jews and other “enemies of the state” brought about WW II and the Holocaust.
Owens achievement of setting three world records in less than an hour at the 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor has been called the greatest 45 minutes ever in sports history.
But, 81 years ago, in Berlin, Owens won four gold medals: 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4×100 meter relay. He was the most successful athlete at the Berlin games and was credited with single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.
Nazi Albert Speer wrote:
“Hitler 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’.”
During the Olympics, Owens stayed in the same German hotel as whites, while in the USA at the time, African-Americans had to stay in segregated hotels while traveling.
Owens returned home a national hero, but a black national hero. He and his family had trouble finding a hotel room in Manhattan. The Olympic Champion was forced to use a service elevator to attend the banquet in his honor. Olympic success made Owens famous, but it could not make him free.
When Owens went to the podium after winning the 100 Meters, Hiltler gave him a “friendly little Nazi salute”. Franklin D Roosevelt never invited Owens to the White House or acknowledged his triumphs in Berlin, and that really hurt the Olympic champion:
“Hitler didn’t snub me, it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
After the Olympics, Owens struggled to make a living and had to participate in stunt races against dogs, motorcycles and horses between doubleheaders of Negro League baseball games. Owens:
“People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals”.
Owens won those gold medals wearing shoes given to him by Adolf Dassler, the founder of Adidas who was a Nazi. Dassler didn’t care that much about Nazi propaganda as he did his athletic shoe business.
Owens and the German silver medalist in the Long Jump, Luz Long, became friends during the 1936 Olympics. Long congratulated and embraced Owens after his win. They corresponded until Long was killed by the Allies in Sicily in 1943. Long was just 30-years-old. 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-karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment”.