Since assuming the role of Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Adolf Hitler had earmarked the 1936 Summer and Winter Olympic Games in Berlin as the perfect showcase to display the superiority of the Nazi regime to the rest of the world. But one man from Alabama who represented everything the Third Reich hated, scuppered Hitler’s hopes.
Jesse Owens, one of the most gifted track and field athletes to ever lace-up a pair of running spikes, had almost been discouraged from even making the trip to Germany, given their dictator’s facist rhetoric.
In 1935, the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Walter Francis White, had written a letter to Owens suggesting that, as an African-American, he should not promote a racist regime after what his race had suffered at the hands of racists in their own country, though the letter was never sent.
In the run-up to the Games, the idea of a boycott from Team USA quickly built momentum and Owens even openly declared: “If there are minorities in Germany who are being discriminated against, the United States should withdraw from the 1936 Olympics.”
Any notion of a boycott was swiftly dismissed however and after Avery Brundage, President of the American Olympic Committee, branded Owens and other athletes “un-American agitators,” they soon conceded and all eventually decided to take part.
Owens had been making waves back home and had already tied the 100-yard dash world record while still in high school but he wasn’t the only African-American sprinter that had Hitler worried; Ralph Metcalf had already picked up a silver medal in the 1932 Olympic Games and he too had at one point held the 100m world record.
After sailing across the Atlantic on the SS Manhattan with the rest of the American team, Owens’ impact at the Games was swift and not only on the track.
Any fear that Jesse Owens wouldn’t be welcome among the German people because of the colour of his skin quickly dissipated when the American athletes were greeted by throngs of fans, many of them young girls, chanting “Wo ist Jesse? Wo ist Jesse?” (Where is Jesse?)
Adding to this, before the Games opened, Adi Dassler, otherwise known as the founder of adidas, persuaded Owens to wear the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes and that resulted in the first sponsorship for a male African-American athlete.
On the course, the 100m was up first for Jesse, arguably the centre-piece of any Olympic event. On August 3, Owens recorded a stunning time of 10.3 seconds to pip teammate Metcalf to gold by just a tenth of a second.
In less than a week, Owens would go on to win the 200 metres, the long jump, defeating Nazi poster boy Luz Long and befriending him in the process, and the 4x100 metres relay - smashing world records in each.
It would take nearly half a century before his tally of four gold medals in a single Games was broken, when Carl Lewis accomplished the feat at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
The idea that Hitler snubbed Jesse Owens has been somewhat blown out of proportion in the years and decades that followed. In reality, Hitler responded to a request to treat the winners equally and declined to publicly congratulate anyone after the first day of competition and there are even some stories claiming that Hitler, possibly influenced by the rapturous German crowd around him, actually applauded Owens’ display himself.
What is true however, is that while Owens may not have humiliated Hitler and the Nazi Party in the way some believe he did, he undoubtedly stole the spotlight from the Fuhrer and his ‘master race’ and Owens’ showing in Berlin will go down in the history books as one of the greatest individual performances in Olympic history.
This article was first published on 03/08/19