Jesse Owens and the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Jesse Owens and the “Nazi Olympics”
“Hitler didn’t snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
— Jesse Owens, in Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics (Jeremy Schaap, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007)
James Cleveland (“J.C.”/“Jesse”) Owens (1913-1980) was born near Oakville, Alabama (southwest of Huntsville) on September 12, 1913. J.C. was only nine years old when Henry and Emma Owens moved the family to Cleveland, Ohio to seek a better life.
Owens is best known for his victories at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where he achieved international fame by winning four gold medals. The American track and field champ first drew national attention as a student at East Technical High School in Cleveland when he equaled the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash and long-jumped 24 feet 9-½ inches at the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago.
Owens later attended Ohio State University, where he was affectionately known as the “Buckeye Bullet.” In 1935 and 1936 he won a record eight individual NCAA championships, four in each year. At the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan on May 25, 1935, Owens set three world records and tied a fourth.
That same year, Jesse Owens married his high school sweetheart, Minnie Ruth Solomon. (Ruth had given birth to their first daughter, Gloria, in 1932.) They would have two more daughters: Marlene (1939) and Beverly (1940).
Jesse Owens’ lasting international fame is the result of his athletic achievements in Berlin over a period of just seven days in the summer of 1936. Between August 3 and August 9 the Afro-American athlete won four gold medals, one each for the 100-meter dash, the long jump, the 200-meter dash, and the 400-meter relay. Owens’ four track and field victories were an achievement not equaled until 1984, when Carl Lewis, another African-American, did the same at the 1984 Summer Olympics. (Lewis was often called the “second Jesse Owens” before he got his negative image.)
|German Track Shoes |
Jesse Owens was wearing German track shoes when he won his gold medals in Berlin. So were all the members of the German team and most of the track and field athletes. His shoes were made by the company co-founded by Adolf ("Adi") Dassler. Today that firm is called Adidas.
Many myths have developed around Owens’ victories in 1936. One of the most persistent erroneous stories is the “Hitler snub” myth. We’ll discuss that one a bit later, but first we’ll look at another Berlin Olympics myth.
The fact that there were American athletes competing in the 1936 Olympics at all is still considered by many to be a blotch on the history of the US Olympic Committee. Germany’s open discrimination against Jews and other “non-Aryans” was already public knowledge when many Americans opposed US participation in the “Nazi Olympics.” The opponents of US participation included the American ambassadors to Germany and Austria. But those who warned that Hitler and the Nazis would use the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin for propaganda purposes lost the battle to have the US boycott the Berlin Olympiade.
Which brings us to our first Olympic myth. It is often stated that Jesse Owens’ four gold medals humiliated Hitler by proving to the world that Nazi claims of Aryan superiority were a lie. But Hitler and the Nazis were far from unhappy with the Olympic results. Not only did Germany win far more medals than any other country at the 1936 Olympics, but the Nazis had pulled off the huge public relations coup that Olympic opponents had predicted, casting Germany and the Nazis, falsely, in a positive light. In the long run, Owens’ victories turned out to be only a minor embarrassment for Nazi Germany.
|Leni Riefenstahl |
Jesse Owens' long-jump victory is documented in the 1938 film Olympia by the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Her groundbreaking film of the 1936 Olympics is considered a cinematic masterpiece.
But Jesse Owens’ reception by the German public and the spectators in the Olympic stadium was warm. There were German cheers of “Yesseh Oh-vens” or just “Oh-vens” from the crowd. Owens was a true celebrity in Berlin, mobbed by autograph seekers to the point that he complained about all the attention. He later claimed that his reception in Berlin was greater than any other he had ever experienced, and he had been quite popular even before the Olympics.
Back in the USA
With his victories and medals behind him, Owens was looking forward to reaping some rewards. But after being stripped of his amateur status, potential sponsors backed out. That, and the racial discrimination of the day in his native land, prevented him from enjoying anything close to the huge financial benefits that African American athletes can expect today. When Owens came home from his success in Nazi Germany, he faced barriers that he would not have faced today. In fact, Owens had encountered far less discrimination in Germany than he did back in his own country. For a post-Olympic reception at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, the world-famous black athlete was forced to use the freight elevator! That is just one example of the humiliating discrimination that even a black man as famous as Owens confronted in those days.
|18 African-American Athletes in Berlin |
Jesse Owens was just one of 18 African-American athletes (including 2 women) who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That was the largest number of black athletes who had ever been part of the US Olympic team up to that time. Ten of the 18 won 14 Olympic medals, 8 of them gold. That figure represents almost one-quarter of the total of 56 medals won by the US team in all events.
SOURCE: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
After the ticker-tape parades, Owens received no Hollywood offers, no endorsement contracts, and no ad deals. His face didn’t appear on cereal boxes. Three years after his victories in Berlin, a failed business deal forced Owens to declare bankruptcy. He made a modest living from his own sports promotions, including racing against a thoroughbred horse. After moving to Chicago in 1949, he started a successful public relations firm. Owens was also a popular jazz disc jockey for many years in the “Windy City.”
The Hitler-Snub Myth
Adolf Hitler did shun a black American athlete at the 1936 Games, but it wasn’t Jesse Owens. On the first day of the Olympics, just before Cornelius Johnson, an African-American althlete who won the first gold medal for the US that day, was to receive his award, Hitler left the stadium early. (The Nazis later claimed it was a previously scheduled departure.) Prior to his departure, Hitler had received a number of winners, but Olympic officials informed the German leader that in the future he must receive all of the winners or none at all. After the first day, he opted to acknowledge none. Jesse Owens had his victories on the second day and later, when Hitler was no longer in attendance. Would Hitler have snubbed Owens if he had been in the stadium on day two? Perhaps. But since he wasn’t there, he didn’t.
|Jesse Owens’ Record Wins |
Owens’ Gold: 100-meter dash in 10.3 seconds (tying the world record), long jump with a jump of 26' 5-¼" (Olympic record), 200-meter dash in 20.7 seconds (Olympic record), and 400-meter relay (first leg) in 39.8 seconds (Olympic and world record).
The FDR Snub
Ironically, the real snub of Owens came from his own president. Even after ticker-tape parades for Owens in New York City and Cleveland, President Franklin D. Roosevelt never publicly acknowledged Owens’ record-breaking achievements. Owens was never invited to the White House and never even received a letter of congratulations from the president. That included the later Truman administration. Almost two decades passed before an American president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, honored Owens by naming him “Ambassador of Sports” — in 1955.
Later US presidents also honored Owens. In 1976, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush posthumously awarded Owens the Congressional Gold Medal.
The many tributes to Owens since his death in 1980 include two US postage stamps (in 1990 and 1998, see photo above). In Berlin a street near the Olympic Stadium in Berlin was renamed Jesse-Owens-Allee in 1984. The Jesse-Owens-Realschule/Oberschule (a secondary school) in the Lichtenberg district of Berlin also honors his name. In 2001, Ohio State University dedicated its Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium for track and field events.
Jesse Owens, a longtime smoker, died of lung cancer in Tucson, Arizona on March 31, 1980. In Phoenix, where he had spent his retired life, his body lay in state in the Arizona capitol rotunda. He is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.
“When I came back, after all those stories about Hitler and his snub, I came back to my native country, and I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. Now what’s the difference?”
— Jesse Owens, quoted in his New York Times obituary (April 1, 1980)
On June 29, 1996, in conjunction with the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Owens’ hometown of Oakville, Alabama dedicated the new 20-acre Jesse Owens Memorial Park in Danville and unveiled the new visitors center, memorial museum, and a replica of the Owens home. As part of a nationwide torch relay, the Olympic Torch passed through Cleveland, Ohio (June 9) and Oakville (June 29), 60 years after Owens’ 1936 Olympic triumph in Berlin. Stuart Owens Rankin, Jesse Owens’ grandson, was one of the torch bearers. (Ironically, the very first Olympic Torch relay was inaugurated by the Nazis for the 1936 Games.)
In October 2005, with help from the Hampton Inn Corporation’s Save-A-Landmark Program, volunteers revitalized the Jesse Owens Memorial Park, which features a bronze statue of the athlete and a replica of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Torch. Jesse’s widow Ruth lit the torch’s eternal flame as part of the 1996 ceremonies.