The Berlin Olympics of 1936 were to be the crowning showcase of the National Socialist Government in Germany. They would prove on an international stage that Aryan supremacy was a living reality. The Nazi establishment carefully choreographed the Olympics to support their ideology. Adolf Hitler had planned to use the event to show the supremacy of the nation, especially concentrating on trying to prove that those not of the Aryan race were of a lesser breed. There was one thing, however, that they didn’t count on – a black man by the name of James Cleveland Owens.
“A remarkable fact of Jesse Owens becoming one of the most recognizable black athletes is, that as a child he was extremely unhealthy. He suffered from chronic bronchial congestion, which meant difficulty breathing and pneumonia, potentially a life-threatening condition.” (Jesse Owens Biography) Born James Cleveland Owens in 1913, he established himself as an up-and-coming athlete at middle school in Cleveland, where his family had moved from Alabama. It was there that he met Charles Riley, who became his coach. ” Riley recognized immediately that he had a precocious talent on his hands and immediately began training the youngster in all aspects of athletics.” (Jesse Owens Biography)
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“Owens sprang to national attention in 1933 at the National High School Championship in Chicago. It was here that he tied the world record for the hundred-yard dash, and jumped close to twenty-five feet.” (ibid) Two years later he confirmed himself a potential all-time great at the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor where he set three world records and tied with a fourth. He did all of this in the space of forty-five minutes. On that day, in fact, he broke the world long jump record by six inches.
Jesse Owens is most well known for his role at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. “Owens’ story is one of a high-profile sports star making a statement that transcended athletics, spilling over into the world of global politics. Berlin, on the verge of World War II, was bristling with Nazism, red-and-black swastikas flying everywhere. Brown-shirted Storm Troopers goose-stepped while Adolf Hitler postured, harangued, threatened. A montage of evil was played over the chillingly familiar Nazi anthem: “Deutschland Uber Alles.” (Owens Pierced a Myth) This was the background for the 1936 Olympics.
On the first day of the competition, August 2nd, German Fuehrer Adolf Hitler presided in his box seat as the competition got underway. When the shot put was completed Hitler publicly congratulated the Finnish athletes who had taken a clean sweep with the gold, silver and bronze medals. He also congratulated the German women who had won gold and silver in the javelin. By the time it came to award the medals for the men’s high jump, however, Hitler had left the stadium. Americans won all three medals in the high jump. Gold medal winner Cornelius Johnson and Silver medal winner Dave Albittron were both blacks.
Owens was primed for greatness on the day of his track and field finals. In the final of the 100-meter dash, he stopped the clock at 10.3 seconds. Coming in just 0.1 of a second behind him was his great rival, Ralph Metcalfe. In the 200 meter final, Owens cruised to victory. In the cold and rain, he ran the distance in 20.7 seconds, just 0.1 of a second off the world record. When it came to the long jump, Owens made a practice jump in his sweatsuit. What he didn’t know was that this was, in fact, his first official jump. This left him annoyed and he fouled on his next jump. With one jump remaining, Luz Long, the German long jumper who was his stiffest competition, introduced himself. He suggested that Owens make a mark several inches before the takeoff board and jump from there to play it safe. Owens took the advice and qualified. By the fifth jump, the two men were tied at exactly twenty-five feet, ten and a half inches.
This was a new Olympic Record. But Owens leaped 26-33/4 on his next attempt and won the gold medal with a final jump of 26-51/2. The first to congratulate the Olympic record holder was Long, the tall, blue-eyed, blonde, who looked like the model Nazi but wasn’t. The German took the silver medal. The two athletes, one black and one white, then embraced, strolling around the stadium arm in arm. This was definitely not the picture that the Nazis had envisioned. “One German official even complained that the Americans were letting “non-humans, like Owens and other Negro athletes,” compete.” (Owens Pierced a Myth) “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens said. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.” (ibid)
Owens’ fourth Gold came in the 400 x 100-meter relay, an event that he wasn’t even entered for until the last moment. For reasons unknown, the two American Jews on the United States team were dropped with Owens and Sam Stoller taking their place. “The rumour was that the Nazi hierarchy had asked U.S. officials not to humiliate Germany further by using two Jews to add to the gold medals the African-Americans already had won. Glickman blamed U.S. Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage for acquiescing to the Nazis.” (ibid) The new U.S. team won the gold easily. Jesse Owens had done the impossible – he had won four gold medals in one day. All eyes now turned to Hitler. Would he congratulate this Afro-American superstar? Obviously, the thought of doing so was too humiliating for the Fuerhur, for after Owen’s second win he stormed out of the Stadium.
When Owens finished competing, the African-American son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves had single-handedly shown Hitler’s theories on Aryan supremacy to be totally twisted and unfounded, confirming that black athletes could be as good, if not better, than other athletes. His stunning victories and achievement of four gold medals including breaking three records and tying another, at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin have made him the best remembered of all Olympic athletes. “His outstanding performance also affirmed that individual excellence rather than race or national origin distinguishes one man or woman from another.” (Who is Jesse Owens)
On his return to the United States, he was given a ‘ticker-tape parade’. The Americans were rightly proud of their humble athlete who had shown up the pride of Nazi Aryan arrogance. A remarkably even-keeled and magnanimous human being, Owens never rubbed it in. Just as sure as he knew fascism was evil, he also knew his country had a ways to go too in improving life for African-Americans. “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,” Owens said. “I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.” (Owens Pierced a Myth) Owens wasn’t complaining, that wasn’t his style, he believed it was his job “to try to make things better.”
As a speaker, he could make the world listen and through his living example he held out hope to millions of young people. Throughout his life, he worked with youths, sharing of himself and the little material wealth that he had. He was as much the champion on the playground in the poorest neighbourhoods as he was on the oval of the Olympic games. He was a true legend in his own time. In February 1979, he returned to the White House, where President Carter presented him with the Living Legend Award. On that occasion, the President said, “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 equalled since…and since this superb achievement, he has continued in his own dedicated but modest way to inspire others to reach for greatness”. (Who is Jesse Owens)
Jesse Owens died on March 31, 1980, and President Carter added his voice to the tributes that poured in from around the world. “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans”. (ibid) Four years later, a street in Berlin was renamed in his honour. A decade after his death, President Bush ‘posthumously’ awarded Owens the Congressional Medal of Honor. Bush called his victories in Berlin “an unrivalled athletic triumph, but more than that, a triumph for all humanity.” (Owens Pierced a Myth)
- Baker, W. (1988) Jesse Owen, an American Life New York Free Press, London: Collier Macmillan
- Barry, J. (1975) The Berlin Olympics, 1936. Black American Athletes Counter Nazi Propaganda New York: F Watts
- Hart-Davis, D. (1988) Hitler’s Olympics, The 1936 Games Sevenoaks: Coronet
- McKissack, P. (1992) Jesse Owens, Olympic Star Hillside, N.J Aldershot: Enslow
- Owens, J, Neimark P. (1978) Jesse a Spiritual Autobiography Plainfield N.J: Logos International
- Who is Jesse Owens http://www.jesse-owens.org/about1.html
- Owens Pierced a Myth http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016393.html
- Jesse Owens Biography http://www.allsands.com/Sports/History/jesseowens_vzw_gn.htm