The Heroic Story of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics

Michael Barera / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Even though the Olympics have a plethora of captivating stories to tell, one of them emerges supreme above others. The story of Jesse Owens, an African-American, defying Hitler will go down as one of the most important events that transpired at the games.

Unfortunately, Jesse did not prevent the war nor was he able to stop the advancement of the Nazi regime. But he proved that one man can stand up and make a difference. Not backing down was eventually what ended the war and Jesse may have been an inspiration for some to do it.

Hitler’s Olympics

FOTO:FORTEPAN / Lőrincze Judit / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Berlin was awarded to host the 1936 Olympics five years prior. The idea was to celebrate Germany’s return to the big stage after the transgression made in World War I. Unfortunately, during the time, Hitler rose to prominence and managed to transform Germany into a one-party dictatorship, established anti-Semitic policies and remilitarized Germany.

At first, Hitler did not think much of the Olympics, especially because of its multinational element. However, he was convinced by his propaganda minister Goebbels to reconsider the importance of the Olympics.

Thus the 1936 Olympics in Berlin became a marketing tool to promote Hitler’s Nazi Germany and a way to display the superiority of the Aryan race.

The Emergence of Owens

Prior to the Olympics, Jesse Owens emerged as quite a track and field star in the US. He dominated the 1935 Big Ten Championship where he broke three world records and tied the forth. This feat becomes even more impressive when we know that he has done all of it in just 45 minutes. Naturally, everyone was expecting a lot of him at the 1936 Olympics.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R96374 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)

Jesse didn’t back down and wanted to prove how good he was. And boy did he prove it.

He immediately won the 100m dash and the 200m race. Jesse even competed in the 4×100 relay where he started as the front runner as they broke the record that year. But the most impressive feat was winning the long jump against Luz Long, who had no choice but to congratulate Jesse n the end.

This was the first time any American of any race in a track and field competition at the Olympics.

Hitler’s Snub

There are many stories that are floating around today about what transpired next. Many claim that Hitler simply snubbed Owens and refused to present him the medal nor has he talked to him.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)

Hitler did agree that all performers should be treated equally and their medals should be presented to each of them accordingly. But he did refuse to congratulate all the winners of the first day of competition, not just Owens.

There is another report that says that Hitler did salute Jesse, but he did it from afar. This was perhaps because he was influenced by the reception the athlete got after winning.

A Global Legacy

In the end, Germany got what they wanted. They did manage to win the most medals of the competition were able to showcase their superior performance. The campaign work and we all know what happened next.

But Jesse will remain that one sore spot in the Fuhrer’s eye. He managed to tarnish the reputation and for a second perhaps shown that a single man is able to go against a tyrannical regime and win.