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Jesse Owens Wins Four Gold Medal at Berlin OlymPics
The Olympics of 1936 opened in Berlin on August 1, 1936. They took place against the shadow of Hitler’s racial laws and persecution of Jewish Germans. Much to Hitlers chagrin an African American was the star of the Olympic- Jesse Owens won four gold medals.
When the Olympic Committee decided in 1931 that Berlin would host the 1936 Summer Olympics it was not anticipated that Adolph Hitler and his Nazis party would be governing within a year. As the Olympics approached and Hitler imposed his Nuremberg racial laws against the Jews of Germany there was discussion of boycotting the Olympics, but that gained no serious traction.
Adolph Hitler saw the Olympics as an opportunity to show off what he could accomplish. The German government built a 100,000 seat stadium for track and field and a number of other smaller stadiums.
Much to Hitlers consternation it was an African American who ran off with the show. Jesse Owens and American track and field star one four gold medals in sprint and long jump competition.
Why is Jesse Owens famous black history?
Owens was the most dominate athlete to compete at the 1936 Olympic Games. He won four gold medals and broke two Olympic records. His record for the world broad jump lasted 25 years.
Owens was hailed as a hero in both Germany and the United States, not only for his athletic feats but for his grace and his ability to compete with the leader of the Nazi party watching. One of the most told stories of sportsmanship in the Olympic Games involved Owens at those Games.
On this Day: Jesse Owens wins fourth gold medal at 1936 Olympic Games
Eighty-one years ago on Aug. 9, 1936, United States track star Jesse Owens won his fourth gold medal at the Berlin Olympic Games when the United States won the 4x100 relay.
Owens and the United States relay team set a new world record for the 4x100 relay of 39.8 seconds which stood for 20 years.
In the final, the United States won gold, Italy won silver with a time of 41.1 seconds and Germany won bronze with a time of 41.2 seconds.
This Day in History: Jesse Owens becomes the first Olympian to win four gold medals
On this day in history, August 9, 1936, In a blow to Hitler’s plan to have the Berlin Olympics prove Aryan superiority, African American athlete Jesse Owens becomes the first Olympian to win four Olympic gold medals.
Born in 1913, Owens emerged as a major track talent while attending high school in Cleveland, Ohio. Later, at Ohio State University, he demonstrated himself to be one of the greatest athletes in the world. In a single day of competition on May 25, 1935, Owens broke the world records for the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles, and the running broad jump, and equaled the world record for the 100-yard dash. The next summer, Owens and 311 other American athletes, including 17 African Americans, traveled to Nazi Germany to represent the United States at the 11th Olympiad.
In 1931, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 Summer Olympics to Berlin. The choice was meant to signal Germany’s return to the world community after defeat in World War I. However, two years later, Adolf Hitler came to power and transformed the democratic German government into a dictatorship, purged political opponents and dissidents, instituted anti-Semitic policies, and began the remilitarization of Germany.
Hitler became an avid supporter of the Olympics after Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels convinced him of the value to be had on their behalf as an opportunity to advance Nazi ideology. In light of this finding, Hitler provided extensive funding for the Berlin Games which promised to be the largest modern Olympics to date. The Nazi government used sport as part of its drive to strengthen the “Aryan race,” and “Non-Aryans”–Jewish, part-Jewish, or Gypsy athletes–were systematically excluded from Nazi-sponsored sports facilities and associations.
A number of prominent Jewish athletes in the United States and other countries decided to independently boycott the Games in protest of Nazi oppression of Jews. Spain also planned an alternate “People’s Olympics” to be held in Barcelona in July 1936, but the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War forced its cancellation.
On August 1, 1936, Adolf Hitler opened the Olympic games and the now traditional appearance of a runner arriving bearing a torch occurred for the first time. The Nazis advertised this ceremony as a symbol of the myth that German civilization was the inheritor of the glorified culture of ancient Greece.
With 348 athletes, Germany had the largest national team and captured the most medals overall. America, however, dominated the track-and-field events. On the first day of competition, Hitler left the stadium shortly after three African Americans swept the high-jump event.
With his four gold medals, Jesse Owens was the star of the Berlin Olympics. He equaled the world record in the 100-meter race and broke the world records in the 200-meter and in the broad jump. He was enthusiastically applauded by the largely German crowd and developed a friendship with German long jumper and silver medalist Luz Long. However, he and other African American Olympians were demeaned by a Nazi newspaper that wrote of them as the “black auxiliaries” of the American team.
Jesse Owens: A Historic Trailblazer & Game Changer
It is one thing to go against all odds and become an Olympian. It is something else entirely to go against the entire world.
This is precisely what Jesse Owens did in 1936.
In a world that doubted the athleticism of individuals on the basis of their skin color, Jesse Owens boldly won four Olympic Gold Medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Why is this moment significant? And how did he get here?
Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama in 1913. His family moved to Ohio, where he would begin to build up his athletics career. Appropriately nicknamed "The Buckeye Bullet,” Owens brought speed to Cleveland. Competing for his high school in Ohio, Owens won 3 events at the 1933 National Interscholastic Champions.
He continued his academic and athletic career at Ohio State University. In college, he pursued track & field with vigor and remained a stand-out competitor. In the Big Ten Conference in 1935, Owens equaled the world record for the 100-yard dash (9.4 sec) and broke the world records for the 220-yard dash (20.3 sec), the 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 sec), and the long jump (8.13 metres / 26.67 feet]).
With such a phenomenal performance under his belt, he was ready for the Olympic stage.
However, these games were different than any before. The Nazi party had taken control of Germany in 1934, and all power in Germany was centralized in Hitler’s person. As such, the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games were designed to be a German showcase and a statement for Aryan supremacy.
Hitler criticized America for including Black athletes on its Olympic roster. It was in these very games that a Black man would win 4 Olympic Gold medals for the United States.
Owens competed in the 100m, 200m, long jump, and relay teams for the United States in the 1936 Olympic Games. He won the gold medal in each event he competed. His performances were spectacular, with a 100-metre run of 10.3 seconds (an Olympic record), a 200-metre run of 20.7 seconds (a world record), a long jump of 8.06 meters ( 26.4 feet), and winning 4 × 100-meter relay (39.8 sec).
This performance is one of legendary proportion. In addition to wining four gold medals, he established a record for the long jump that stood for 25 years. This would be broken by fellow United States athlete, Ralph Boston, in 1960.
Although Owens helped ensure that the United States triumphed at the games, he was not met with a celebratory return. The president at the time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, did not congratulate Owens. This was atypical behavior for champions at the time. In fact, Owens would not be truly recognized for his athletic feats until 1976. Under President Gerald Ford, Owens was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
After 1936 Olympic Games, Owens retired from athletics. He used his speed and physical prowess to earn money in other means, such as by racing cars and horses. He even played basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters. Owens eventually found his calling in public relations and marketing, and he set up a business in Chicago.
Beginning in December 1979, he was hospitalized on and off with lung cancer. He later passed away in 1980. However, Owens’ legacy outlives him. For his phenomenal, stereotype defining performance in the 1936 Olympic Games, he is truly a legend who shaped the game of track and field. Paving the way for all people to be considered for their athletic merit.
Great Sporting Moments: Jesse Owens wins four gold medals in Berlin
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Some athletes achieve immortality through a single, consummate moment. Bob Beamon travels through the thin air of Mexico City at the 1968 Olympics, on and on, before touching down in the sand. When he realises he has long-jumped 8.90 metres, or 29 feet 21/2 inches - nearly 2 feet further than the world record, in a discipline where increments are normally measured in inches - he collapses in shock. Filbert Bayi goes straight to the front in the 1974 Commonwealth Games 1500m final at Christchurch, and stays there, and stays there - and, 3 minutes 32.16 seconds later, with the field closing but not close, its leaders also running beyond their known limits, he has taken almost a full second off the world record of the great Jim Ryun.
These are the occasions on which events in track and field leap forward, and they are celebrated as such by those whose spirits leap up in witness.
But how to celebrate a man who produced not one explosion of athletics brilliance, but a series of detonations whose aftershocks still reverberate within the sport more than 70 years later?
When Jesse Owens collected his fourth gold medal of the 1936 Olympics as a member of the United States 4x100m relay team - his 12th event, including heats, in the space of seven days - he completed a unique sequence of achievement that still stands as an incomparable indicator of sporting excellence.
Owens's Olympic victories - in the 100m, 200m, long jump and sprint relay - were eventually matched, in scope at least, by Carl Lewis, in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. What gives Owens's achievement a far deeper resonance is the context. Unlike Lewis, who was feted on home soil, Owens, the 22-year-old son of Alabama sharecroppers and the grandson of slaves, was competing in the most intimidating environment imaginable. The scene of his triumphs was Berlin, where the racist ideology of the Nazi regime was building towards its full, awful intensity - and where the great instigator himself, Adolf Hitler, was a regular spectator in the stands of the Olympic stadium.
When Lewis competed in Los Angeles, he suffered some heckling in response to his decision to be economical with his attempts in the long jump (saving himself for the other events). When Owens competed in Berlin, he was operating within the framework of a regime that considered him intrinsically inferior.
Nazi propaganda was already portraying Negroes as "black auxiliaries". And, as Albert Speer, Germany's war armaments minister, recalled in his memoirs, Inside The Third Reich, Hitler was "highly annoyed" by Owens's series of victories. Speer added: "People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug their physiques were stronger than those of civilised whites and hence should be excluded from future games."
To maintain a peak of achievement over a whole week in such an ugly moral environment was a mark of Owens's courage and determination. In later years, the story was told - and not always discouraged by Owens himself - of how Hitler had snubbed him by refusing to shake his hand after his victories, his form of congratulation for German winners.
This was not so. Hitler had indeed shaken hands with all the German victors on the first day of competition, and with the three medal winners in the 10,000m, who were all from Finland, his future allies in the Second World War. But Olympic officials then insisted he acknowledge publicly either all winners or none. Hitler chose the latter course, and so from the second day of competition, when Owens began his Olympics with the 100m heats, there was no question of his being personally greeted by the Führer.
If there was one black American who might have expected that dubious honour, it was Cornelius Johnson, winner of the high jump at the end of the first day. Hitler left the stadium early. Now there was a snub.
In fact, despite the chilling racism of the Nazi regime, Owens found the atmosphere in Berlin personally supportive for much of the time. He was cheered by the crowd - "Yesseh Oh-vens, Yesseh Oh-vens" - and mobbed by autograph hunters. While in the German capital, Owens was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites - something that was denied to his fellow black countrymen back in the United States. Owens, in truth, had already had practice at maintaining his athletics course in the face of prejudice.
The irony was compounded when Owens returned home - to a deafening silence from Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House. "Hitler didn't snub me - it was [FDR] who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram," he was quoted as saying in Triumph, Jeremy Schaap's book about the 1936 Games.
This was an extraordinary omission. Even before the Games, Owens was an athletics superstar. Even in Berlin, spectators were aware of his staggering achievements on 25 May the previous year, when, while competing for Ohio State University at Ann Arbor, Michigan, he broke five world records and equalled a sixth in the space of three-quarters of an hour.
It had been a logistical feat in itself for Owens to fit in his exploits around the timetable of the meeting, something he was able to do only by gambling on taking just one long jump.
He later told French journalist Robert Parienté about his anxiety on the morning of that competition, as Parienté relates in his mammoth work, La Fabuleuse Histoire de l'Athletisme. Owens recalled that he had thought until the last moment that he would not be able to take part at all because of pain in his back - pain so acute that he had to take a hot bath before competing and required his team-mates to help him get kitted out beforehand. But, as the starting gun cracked for his opening event, the 100 yards, "as if by a miracle", he forgot his pain and concentrated on relaxing into his running. He equalled the world record of 9.4 seconds.
Even in his joy, Owens could not afford to lose concentration, as he had only 10 minutes to prepare for his single long jump. His solitary effort elicited exclamations of excitement from his competitors. "That immediately told me that I had just done something important," Owens commented. He had become the first man to break 8 metres, setting a world record of 8.13 metres that would stand for 25 years.
He then had a quarter of an hour to get ready for the 220 yards flat race, which was swiftly followed by the 220 yards low hurdles. He won both in world record times, of 20.3sec and 22.6sec respectively, setting new marks for the 200m and 200m hurdles en route.
"Under the acclamation of 10,000 spectators who could not believe their eyes, he put his tracksuit back on," Parienté writes. "Straight away the rain returned."
In Berlin, however, despite this superlative track record, Owens was not clear favourite to win the event he considered the paramount challenge at the Olympics - the 100m - even though, by that time, he shared the world record of 10.2sec with fellow Americans Charlie Paddock and Ralph Metcalfe.
Owens had been beaten three times over 100 metres in 1935 by Eulace Peacock, a tough, muscular character - also from Alabama - who had emerged from American Football at the age of 20 and swiftly established himself as a formidable sprinter and long jumper. Six weeks after Owens's display at Ann Arbor, Peacock became the second man to jump 8 metres in defeating the world record holder at the USA Championships in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Peacock then defeated Metcalfe and Owens in the 100m, and had beaten Owens twice more over that distance before the season was over. Away from the track, meanwhile, Owens was having to adjust to becoming a father after his high school sweetheart, whom he subsequently married, gave birth to a daughter.
Sadly for Peacock, an injury in May 1936 ended his contention for the Olympics, and effectively ended his top class career. But Metcalfe had qualified for Berlin and was eager to better the 100m silver he had earned in Los Angeles four years earlier. So Owens had to do a great deal more than turn up and face down those who wished him ill on account of the colour of his skin. He also had to contend with some high-class opposition. Owens won his opening heat, on 2 August, equalling the Olympic record of 10.3sec. In the second round, he recorded 10.2sec - a performance that would have equalled the world record had the following wind not been over the allowable limit. The next day was cool and cloudy - not ideal sprinting weather. Owens won his semi-final with a time of 10.4sec, and a fluid start in the final gave him the lead from the first stride. By halfway he had increased that lead to 5 feet. Metcalfe, habitually a relatively slow starter, had almost stumbled out of the blocks, and although he closed the gap in the second half of the race he finished a yard adrift in 10.4sec, as Owens equalled the Olympic record of 10.3sec. Owens later wrote: "Winning the 100m was the most memorable moment of all - to be known as the world's fastest human being."
He had earned the gold medal he most wanted, and with relative ease. As things turned out, his other sprinting medals would also arrive without anxiety - for him, at least. Yet they were no small matter in terms of their sporting and cultural significance.
The 200m final, on 5 August, offered Owens substantial grounds for hope in that Metcalfe, who 34 years later would be elected to the US Congress, had unaccountably failed to qualify for the event at the Games, having finished only fourth in the trials. Instead, as a light rain fell on a cold, damp evening, Owens's principal rival turned out to be the man who had followed him home in the trials, Mack Robinson. The rivalry was not a close one, even though, in his semi-final, Robinson had matched the Olympic record of 21.1sec that Owens had set in the first round, and had repeated in the second.
But the final was all about Owens. The 100m champion's relaxed style saw him flow around the bend with a two-yard advantage that had turned to four yards by the finish as he lowered his Olympic record to 20.7sec.
His final track gold - which would be his fourth overall - arrived on 9 August as he ran the first leg of the sprint relay to set up a winning margin that was subsequently maintained by Metcalfe, Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff. The quartet finished 15 yards clear of the Italians in a world record time of 39.8sec that would stand for 20 years. That victory was disfigured by a controversy over selection which was a reminder of the ugly themes that were never wholly absent from the background of the Berlin Games. In the weeks leading up to the event it had been assumed that the US quartet would comprise Draper, Wykoff, Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman. In his standard work, The Complete Book of the Olympics, David Wallechinsky quotes the response of the US sprint coach, Lawson Robertson, when asked in the the wake of Owens's 200m victory whether the new champion would be added to the line-up: "Owens has had enough glory and collected enough gold medals and oak trees to last him a while," Robertson said. "We want to give the other boys the chance to enjoy the ceremonie protocolaire."
Glickman, Stoller and Wykoff were assured of their places. The fourth choice would be between Draper and Metcalfe.
On the morning of the first heats, however, US officials told Glickman and Stoller that they were being dropped in favour of Owens and Metcalfe. Glickman and Stoller were the only Jewish athletes on the US team, and Glickman for one was convinced that the US Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage, had adjusted the team in order to avoid exacerbating the Führer's sensibilities. It was one unedifying episode which diminished the lustre of Owens's final Olympic flourish. Yet part of the glory of his Olympic achievement was the fact that, as relentlessly as the racists of various nations tried to poison the proceedings with their messages of hate, his own personal story continued to demonstrate the other side of the Olympic ideal: not the jingoistic one, but the ideal of sport as a force that can bring the human family together. Which brings us, belatedly, to Owens's second medal.
On 4 August, the day before his 200m victory, Owens had already received something he subsequently claimed he prized above anything that found its way round his neck during those seven days of glory: the comradeship of "Luz" Long.
At first glance, the German long jumper - tall, blue-eyed and blond - was the personification of the Aryan ideal of Nazi ideology. And although Owens arrived for long jump qualifying on the morning of 4 August as world record holder, he was soon put on his guard by the sight of Long taking prodigious leaps in practice. On the face of it, here was an ideal opportunity for the Nazis to see their theories of racial supremacy put into practice.
The qualifying distance was 7.15m, hardly a stretch for the man who had jumped 8.13m. But, having won his early morning 200m qualifying round in an Olympic record of 21.1sec, Owens failed to see the judges raising their flags to indicate the start of competition. Still in his tracksuit, he took a practice run down the approach and into the pit, only to see officials indicating that this had counted as the first of his three efforts.
Discomfited, he fouled on his next attempt. This left him with only one remaining jump to ensure that he reached the final later in the day.
At this point, according to Owens, the embodiment of the Aryan ideal sauntered up to him and introduced himself in English. Wallechinsky reports the subsequent conversation thus: "Glad to meet you," said Owens tentatively. "How are you?" "I'm fine," replied Long. "The question is, how are you?"
"What do you mean?" asked Owen.
"Something must be eating you," said Long, proud to display his knowledge of American slang. "You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed."
Then, apparently, Long suggested that, as the qualifying distance was only 7.15m, Owens should shift his mark back to ensure that he took off well short of the board and remained clear of any possibility of fouling again.
Owens complied, retracting the initial marker for his run-up by a foot and a half before taking off uninhibitedly to qualify with just half a centimetre to spare.
When the final was held later that afternoon, Owens took a first round lead with 7.74m. In the second round, generating a deep roar of approval within the Olympic stadium, Long matched that mark, only for the American to respond with 7.87m. But on his fifth and penultimate attempt, the German created general uproar, and jubilation in an official tribune that contained not just Hitler but Goebbels, Goering, Hess and Himmler, by matching Owens again.
As Owens prepared to respond, it was his German opponent who raised both arms in the air as if to still the ferment, casting what Parienté described as a "furtive" glance towards his nation's unruly rulers.
Now Owens embraced his opportunity, fluent on the runway, his feet pattering lightly before a take-off that re-established his superiority as he landed at 7.94m. With his sixth and final attempt, Long could not improve on his best. Hitler immediately rose and left the stadium - missing the American's concluding effort: 8.06m.
"That business with Hitler didn't bother me," Owens later wrote. "I didn't go there to shake hands. What I remember most was the friendship I struck up with Luz Long. He was my strongest rival, yet it was he who advised me to adjust my run-up in the qualifying round and thereby helped me to win.
"We corresponded regularly until Hitler invaded Poland and then the letters stopped. I learnt later that Luz was killed in the war, but afterwards I started corresponding with his son and in this way our friendship was preserved."
Long perished in a British military hospital after receiving fatal wounds during the Battle of St Pietro in 1943. Owens, who took up smoking after his athletics career ended, died of lung cancer on 31 March 1980.
For Owens, the moment of ultimate glory was brief. He declined the invitation to compete immediately after the Games at a meeting in Sweden, preferring to capitalise on his success by taking up commercial offers in the States. American officials immediately withdrew his amateur status, effectively ending his career.
Without obvious opportunities to demonstrate his abilities, Owens found that the offers swiftly dwindled, and he was obliged to become, effectively, an athletics sideshow as he raised money by challenging local sprinters over 100 yards, giving them 10 or 20 yards' start. He also raced against horses, sometimes winning.
"People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do?" Owens said. "I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals."
That pragmatic attitude was mirrored in his reaction to the Black Power salutes offered on the podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympics by the 200m gold and bronze medallists Tommy Smith and John Carlos. "The black fist is a meaningless symbol," Owens said.
"When you open it you have nothing but fingers - weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there's money inside. There's where the power lies."
Owens spoke from bitter experience, having briefly run a dry-cleaning business and then worked as a petrol station attendant before filing for bankruptcy. In 1966 he had been prosecuted for tax evasion, but his life took an upturn as he began work travelling the world as a "goodwill ambassador", addressing gatherings at the US Olympic Committee and the Ford Motor Company. It was during these years that his story became adorned with elements of myth, notably the suggestion that Hitler had actively snubbed him.
Even Owens's name contained an ambiguity. He had been christened James Cleveland Owens, but became known as Jesse at the age of nine soon after his family had moved to Cleveland, Ohio, as part of the Great Migration away from the cotton fields. His new teacher asked him his name and mistook his country accent when he responded: "JC Owens." What was unambiguous, however, was the place his feats had earned for him in the history of his sport.
Many observers believe that, in purely athletic terms, his greatest glory was at Ann Arbor, rather than Berlin. But the significance of his Olympic achievements went beyond sport, as he gave the lie to Nazi ideology in its very cradle, under the gaze of its creator.
Owens's long jump victory is well documented in Olympia, the film made by German director Leni Riefenstahl, which was intended to offer enduring proof of Aryan superiority. Meanwhile, as a symbol of hope - of sport as a celebration of our common humanity - his relationship within that event with the man who finished as silver medallist could hardly be bettered.
The tall, doomed German was the first to congratulate Owens in his moment of victory.
"You can melt down all the medals and cups I have," Owens wrote later. "And they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment."
Jesse Owens marched into Hitler's Germany and won four gold medals
Three years ago, a German sportswriter came forward with a claim that Adolf Hitler did not snub Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the ones where Owens won a then-unprecedented four track and field gold medals. In fact, the sportswriter revealed, Hitler privately shook Owens' hand after he'd won the 100 meters.
There is no photograph to prove the encounter happened, which even if it had wouldn't have changed the fact that at a time in history when Hitler was espousing Aryan racial superiority, Owens had gone out and showed the world he was wrong.
Owens' four-gold haul in the 1936 Games is the greatest up-yours performance in the history of sport, even if he didn't treat it that way. No one could have questioned Owens had he turned his back on Hitler as he stood on the medal stand those four times, Nazi salutes all around him. But he rose above that.
"I've always hoped to be a motivating force for good," he said, "because people have given so much to me."
The greatness of Jesse Owens wasn't just that he won four gold medals in Hitler's backyard. It's how he won – with class.
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James “J.C.” Cleveland Owens was one of the fastest men to ever live. But as a black child growing up in Jim Crow America, Owens' future was far from set. Born into an impoverished family of sharecroppers in Oakville, Alabama, in 1913, wh en he was 5 years old, his mother had to remove a large lump on his chest with a kitchen knife because they couldn’t afford to take him for surgery. Owens survived the makeshift procedure, and went on to become a legend, winning four gold medals at the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin, a feat that wouldn’t be matched for another 50 years, when Carl Lewis did the same at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
But there's more to Owens' story than his most famous moment. Indeed, Owens greatest athletic achievement wasn't even at the Olympics, it came a year before at the 1935 Big Ten Track and Field Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, as an Ohio State sophomore, Jesse (his nickname the product of a teacher who once pronounced his name “ Jey - See ”) set four world records in the long jump, the 220-yard dash, the 220 low hurdles, and then tied the world record in the 100-yard dash in under an hour. He accomplished all of this, despite having injured his tailbone so badly before the race that he couldn’t bend over to touch his knees. It was a feat that Sports Illustrated dubbed the "Greatest 45 minutes ever in Sports."
Owens' life after the 1936 Olympics was no storybook tale, either. Following the Games, Owens struggled to capitalize on his fame, returning to a racially divided country that wanted to celebrate his accomplishments but not his skin color.
Smithsonian curator Damion Thomas, who oversees the sports collections at the National Museum of African American History, speaks with Smithsonian.com to unpack the myths and realities of one of the greatest Olympians of all time.
Talk to me about Jesse Owens' early life and the context around his family’s poverty
Jesse Owens is born in Alabama, and his family moves to Cleveland as part of the Great Migration, a number of African Americans who left the South during World War I looking for greater opportunities. Jesse Owens’ family were sharecroppers, which was a legalized way to keep African Americans tied to farms in the South.
It was a system in which you bought all of your food and clothing from the owners of these large plantations. They wouldn’t tell you how much it all cost they wouldn’t tell you how much money you had in your account. Then they would take the cotton that you harvested that year, or the crops you harvested, they would take them to market and sell them, and then come back and tell you how much they sold them for.
So the people who actually did the work didn’t control the ability to take the items to market, and so what happened is that sharecropping families always got cheated. Somehow, they always still owed rent, owed for food and clothing and things like that. It was a system designed to keep African Americans tied to the land. And it was a system designed to keep them from having financial prosperity. That’s the plight of generations of African Americans who are tied to the South before they begin to move up North.
But the family still struggles once they move to Cleveland, right?
One of the reasons that Jesse Owens went to Ohio State is that they gave his dad a job. It’s a way for his dad to get some employment in a very harsh racial environment. I thought the film did a great job in not romanticizing the North but demonstrating the clear-cut ways that African Americans were still treated as second-class citizens. . . He was still operating in a very racist environment, even at a Big Ten university in the North, there were still tremendous challenges that African Americans faced though they were allowed to compete and attend. I thought, in many ways, that was one of the biggest strengths of the film, it didn’t romanticize his time at Ohio State.
Can you explain just how significant his performance at the Big Ten Track and Field Championships in Ann Arbor was?
It was an all-time historic event. To set so many world records in one meet, it’s something that you don’t see. It’s really interesting in the film that they have a clock and you can see the short timespan in which he accomplishes these amazing feats. I thought that was another one of the strengths of the film, it suggested how important this meet was and how dominant he was.
Jesse’s greatest competitor in the United States was Eulace Peacock, whom we meet in the film. How would you say the athletes stacked up against each other? Eulace did beat Jesse at an important meet. Is there a case to be made that Peacock was the more dominant athlete?
Eulace Peacock was a great track athlete. But we largely don’t know anything about him because he didn’t make the Olympic team. He didn’t compete, didn’t get a gold medal. I think it speaks to how significant the Olympics are for track and field athletes, and because he didn’t get a chance to compete, he’s become largely forgotten in our history. Peacock did beat him in an important race, but Jesse Owens has four gold medals. Peacock doesn’t have any. And that is the defining way we evaluate track and field athletes.
Tell me about track and field athletes in the 1930s. The sport enjoyed an incredible popularity in the United States
Track and field was a much bigger sport at that time. During this time, it’s all about amateur sports, they’re held in higher esteem than professional sports. Those sports were looked down upon. Track and field, collegiate basketball, collegiate football were considered the ultimate sporting spaces.
How did you feel about the film's portrayal of the United States Olympic Committee president and newly minted member of the International Olympic Committee Avery Brundage?
I think the film does an excellent job explaining how important Avery Brundage is to the U.S. Olympic Committee. He is the head of the committee for roughly 20 years, then he’s head of the IOC [International Olympic Committee] for an incredibly long time as well, about 20 years. You can make a case that Avery Brundge is one of the most significant people in Olympic history.
At the time, World War I was known as the Great War and people never thought they’d see a war that was so destructive. So here you are, roughly 15 years later looking at the prospect of going through that again, and a lot of people had lost family members and seen the destruction of families, societies, countries from that war and wanted to avoid it. There’s a level of appeasement that you see taking place. The film did a great job of showing Avery Brundage seeing the signs, seeing people being round up, seeing people being assaulted and treated less than others because they were Jews.
In some ways, it’s also a testament to Avery Brundage’s mistaken belief in the power of sports—this idea that sports are about peace, and sports can bring people together, and sports are a way to heal wounds. One important thing to remember about the 1936 Olympics is that one of the reasons Germany is awarded the Olympics is that it’s a way for nations around the world to welcome Germany back into its good graces. After that, Hitler comes to power and wants to use the Games for his own political purposes. So it’s a difficult time. And I think the film tried to wrestle with that difficult time.
Though Brundage does help push the United States to compete in the Berlin Games, the film shows how Jesse Owens was torn by the decision to attend. Can you describe the pressure he faced as he made his decision?
The scene where the representative from the NAACP comes to talk to him is a really important one because there was tremendous discussion in the African American community about whether African Americans should go compete. Particularly since it’s the Jews who are being persecuted.
The NAACP and other African American organizations had formed tremendous alliances with Jewish organizations and had been working together to solve these dual problems what was known as the “Negro question” and the “Jewish question” became a strong connection between African Americans and Jews fighting for equality. In fact, a couple of the founders of the NAACP were Jewish Americans and had been heavy financial supporters of the organization. So people saw this as an opportunity to return the favor and take a principled stand against Nazi Germany. It was a complicated situation where you’re asking an athlete to become a symbol of a larger struggle, and certainly there was lots of pressure on him and the other 17 African Americans who went to compete and had to make a decision on how to best use their platform.
As Race shows, Leni Riefenstahl films the Olympic Games. What was she trying to do and how does her work usher in a new era of Olympic competition?
Race does a great job of capturing her work, which is still one of the most important in film history in terms of her use of slow motion, of close ups, and different kinds of angles. It was her technical innovations that we see transform moviemaking, but also it’s her mythmaking and story production.
The Germans wanted to use the Berlin Games to suggest they were the heirs to the Greek empire, and the film is largely designed with that focus, that’s why you have the torch relay from Greece all the way to Berlin and into the stadium. The Berlin stadium up until that time is the most impressive stadium in the world and that speaks to the engineering prowess of Germany—to create this spectacle that the world comes to see.
The way she films this arena, and what it looks like is important. To this propaganda campaign, one of the things people often say is that Jesse Owens and his four gold medals destroyed the myth of Aryan supremacy, but that’s not how the Germans saw it. One, they saw the Olympic Games as suggesting that they were the heirs to the Greeks. And they do for a couple of reasons, number one is that they won more medals than anyone, so the Olympic Games still became a way for them to claim superiority.
The film doesn’t show Hitler meeting Jesse Owens after he wins his first medal, but there is a story that has persisted that Hitler refused to shake Owens’ hand. Can you talk about the fact or fiction around this handshake?
In terms of the handshake, what happened is that on the first day of competition Hitler shook the hands of all the German winners, and the Olympic officials went to him and said: you can’t do that. As the host, you just can’t shake hands with the German winners, you have to shake hands with all the winners.
It’s either one or the other, and Hitler decided he wouldn’t shake hands with any of the winners and it so happens that Jesse Owens wins the next day, and so that scene where Jesse Owens is taken up into the suite to shake Hitler’s hand is largely fiction because it wouldn’t have happened in that particular way.
One of the things that happened later is this myth of Hitler not shaking Jesse Owens’ hand becomes this story that people tell. And Jesse Owens, who struggled financially after the Olympic Games, would go on the banquet circuit and tell the story. It became this kind of moneymaking story for him. Because by depicting Hitler in that way, it was in some ways making America seem like a more open place to be.
In Germany, Jesse Owens befriends the German athlete Luz Long. Can you explain the significance of their friendship at the Games and afterward?
The thing about Jesse Owens is he was incredibly popular in Germany, and the German fans were very appreciative of him. The reason sports, particularly amateur sports were so important at that point, is that sports teach values, they teach character, they teach discipline, they teach collegiality, and we see Luz Long demonstrating that.
He becomes a symbol of a different Germany. You have Luz symbolizing Germany as a kind of compassionate empire, and Hitler representing the worst of Germany, so Luz becomes an important kind of person that helps balance out those depictions.
In some ways, what ultimately happens in German history is that Hitler becomes evil, but the German people were not. Jesse Owens gets invited back to Germany in the 1950s, he runs around the Berlin stadium track again and is celebrated. A large part of that is the German people trying to distance themselves from Hitler.
Jesse Owens by Leni Riefenstahl, gelatin silver print, 1936 (©Leni Riefenstahl Productions, National Portrait Gallery)
What does it mean for Jesse Owens to bring his unparalleled four gold medals home to the United States?
When Jesse Owens wins four gold medals, the meaning is complicated. What does that say about society and African Americans? Those are important questions that people want to engage. On one hand, you can say even with segregation, African Americans are able to achieve incredible heights, demonstrate incredible achievements, but what you also have to acknowledge is that American society is about defining African Americans as inferior.
If we go back to the early history of sports and why sports becomes popular in the United States, it is because sports reinforced intellectual ability. A healthy mind and a healthy body go together. That’s one of the reasons sports becomes such an important part of the educational system. What happens then when African Americans become the dominant athletes? What ultimately takes place is that meaning of sports starts to change.
Rather than athletic capacity and intellectual capacity being intimately tied, now people say it’s an inverse relationship. Jesse Owens is a dominant athlete because he’s more primitive, because African Americans have longer limbs. People argue that African Americans have more fast twitch muscles. There becomes a biological argument that explains why African Americans achieve in athletics, achieve in track and field. What happens is that even when Jesse Owens becomes a dominant athlete, arguably the best ever, this is still used to define African Americans as inferior.
What is it like for Jesse Owens to be an athletic superstar in a very racial divided America?
After 1936, Jesse Owens tries to capitalize on his athletic fame. He’s an athletic star, but part of the problem is he doesn’t get the opportunity to transcend into the status of celebrity. One of the things the film doesn’t deal with is the aftermath of Owens winning four gold medals. Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the Olympic Games and the U.S. Olympic Committee has to pay back the expenses and so they go on a tour of Europe where they’re asked to run races in poor conditions. He competed in several events before the tour is over and then he says, I’m done, I’m not doing it, and he leaves.
Avery Brundage then suspends him from international competition. So here you have one of the biggest stars getting suspended from competing in amateur sports. That’s where things begin to change for Jesse Owens.
He gets involved in the presidential campaign and he tours with Al Smith. It’s a very unpopular decision for Jesse Owens to do that particularly when African Americans were largely supporting Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Then he comes back and how do you turn athletic success into money-making opportunities? Jesse Owens spent much of the 1940s working for the Harlem Globetrotters, where he would be an announcer and he would run around the track during half time.
He was involved in a number of dehumanizing activities, racing horses and things of that nature trying to earn a living. So it was tough for him to make a living.
In the 1960s, many African Americans become critical of Jesse Owens. Do you think this critique is fair or unfair?
One of the things that happened to a number of African Americans athletes, in particular Jesse Owens and Joe Lewis, is that by the 1960s, people begin to see their model of integration, particularly this idea of being a “good negro,” someone who doesn’t talk about race, being called a credit to their race because of the fact that they’re deferential, because they’re not rebel rousers.
By the late 1960s, you have a whole generation of athletes who have come into the NBA, the NFL and to other sports. By the late 1960s, the black presence in sports is firmly established and then those athletes begin to look back at earlier generations and sort of critique them for their willingness to kind of be humble and deferential.
And it’s unfair because each generation has its own struggle, each generation has its own battles to fight and so to look at an earlier generation of athletes and critique them because they’re not fighting the battles of your generation is simply unfair.
Is there anything else you noticed in the film that you’d like to discuss?
Yes, there is one thing. The film doesn’t do a good job of discussing Owens in relation to the other 17 African Americans that competed in the 1936 Olympics. Jesse becomes the one racial representative when there were some incredible athletes there. Ralph Metcalfe went on to a distinguished career in Congress, James LuValle went on to a distinguished career, and others. I think the emphasis on Jesse Owens obscures the fact that he was part of a larger contingent, and the significance of that group of athletes is often lost by the focus on Jesse.
Last question, overall, how do you think that Race did tacking the dual meaning in its title?
I think that one of the problems with Hollywood is it often wants to end its films with a triumphant story. Certainly, Jesse Owens has a triumphant moment at the 1936 Olympics, but it’s quickly washed away when he gets banned from amateur competition, and his inability to secure a solid financial future.
He lives a really difficult existence, gets in tax trouble with the IRS. I don’t know that we got a full story about what winning meant and didn’t mean for Jesse Owens. It’s interesting that at the end of the film we see Jesse Owens going to the Waldorf Astoria in New York. That is a perfect ending to the film because he’s being honored, but he’s got to go through the back door. That is a perfect metaphor for the experiences of African Americans through much of the early- to mid-20th century.
About Jackie Mansky
Jacqueline Mansky is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She was previously the assistant web editor, humanities, for Smithsonian magazine.
Coverage of Jesse Owens's 1936 Olympic Victories
Browse a selection of front pages that cover the U.S. track and field athlete's performance at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. The African-American superstar's four gold medals were a blow to Adolf Hitler's attempt to showcase Aryan supremacy at the Games.
Jesse Owens Breaks Record in 100-Meter Dash
The Aug. 3, 1936, edition of San Francisco's Chronicle reports that Jesse Owens breaks the world record for the 100-meter dash. The American sprinter is pictured finishing well ahead of the pack in the quarter-final at the 1936 Summer Olympics.
Jesse Owens's World Record 'Tossed Out'
The Aug. 3, 1936, evening edition of The Baltimore News-Post notes that Olympic officials tossed out the world record Jesse Owens set in the 100-meter dash quarter-finals, ruling that wind was a factor.
German Coverage of Jesse Owens at Berlin Olympics
A German-language newspaper notes that Tilly Fleischer wins the first gold medal for Nazi Germany at the 1936 Games.
Cleveland Paper: Owens Leads 'Yankee Doodle Boys'
Jesse Owens's hometown newspaper notes that the "wing-footed young Clevelander" led "those Yankee Doodle boys" at the 1936 Summer Olympics. The Americans dominated track and field events Owens won gold medals in the broad jump, 100-meter race, 200-meter race and 4x100-meter relay team.
Jesse Owens Smashes Olympic Records, Donates Trees
The sports section of the Lancaster (Ohio) Eagle-Gazette dedicates two articles to Cleveland native Jesse Owens. One provides a description of his record-breaking finish at the 1936 Berlin Olympics the other details his donation of "genuine Olympic oaks" to Ohio schools.
Owens Unbeatable, Says 'The Baltimore News-Post'
This Maryland newspaper notes that "the United States today ended all doubt about team supremacy" and produced "the first double winner of the eleventh Olympiad in an amazing unbeatable Jesse Owens."
Owens Wins Second Gold Medal at Olympics
An Associated Press article on the front of the Chicago Daily Tribune sports section notes that the second gold medal for Jesse Owens, "the tan thunderbolt," came in the long jump.
German Paper: Gold for USA, Record for Owens
The banner headline in the Volkischer Beobachter, a Nazi newspaper, notes the four gold medals for the USA at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The subhead says Jesse Owens sets world record in the broad jump.
Owens 'Rocketed' to Third Gold in Berlin
The New York Times celebrates multiple American wins in the men's track and field events at the 1936 Olympics, including Jesse Owens's third gold medal.