Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens is one of the most well-known and celebrated Olympians of the modern era. Son of a sharecropper and grandson of slaves, he is known to many as the man who “single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.”[1] Because of this legacy, it might shock people that Owens espoused a close friendship with his Nazi competitor Luz Long. Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to commend any of the African American athletes who represented the United States at the games, a clear demonstration of the racist climate of the country at the time. This was especially appalling when compared to the reaction of Adolf Hitler, who reportedly acknowledged and congratulated Jesse Owens on his achievements.

Being the first games to be televised, the 1936 Olympics were Hitler’s opportunity to demonstrate Nazi propaganda on the world stage, promoting ideals of antisemitism and racial supremacy. He also sought to promote German superiority, eclipsing the 1932 Los Angeles Games with a new, 100,000-seat track and field stadium.

In the months building up to the Games, a movement gained momentum calling for a complete boycott of the United States from the 1936 Games. Still, Owens and his fellow athletes sailed on the SS Manhattan for Berlin. Despite racist Nazi propaganda, Owens was greeted with great fanfare in Berlin, and Adi Dassler visited him at the Olympic village to persuade Owens to wear his Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes. This was the first sponsorship for an African American male athlete.

Within the week, Owens won four gold medals in the 100m dash, long jump, 200m sprint and 4x100m relay.

Owens has publicly credited his triumph in the long jump (at least in part) to Luz Long - the blonde-haired, blue-eyed German competitor who, after Owens fouled in his first two jumps, suggested Owens make a mark several inches before the takeoff board to play it safe. Owens took the advice and qualified. After being defeated by Owens in the long jump finals, Long was the first person to go and congratulate Owens on his victory: looking, but not quite playing the part of the archetypal Nazi.[2] After, Owens said: “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler... I would melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the twenty-four karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”[3]

Although Hitler has been criticised (amongst other things) for failing to acknowledge Owens or shake his hand, Owens has spoken about these claims:

“Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters… But before he left, I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me, and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the "man of the hour" in another country.”[4]

Owens was snubbed, however, by the President of his own country: Franklin D. Roosevelt. Viewed by many African Americans as a hero for their inclusion in the New Deal by virtue of the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) which banned discriminatory hiring, Roosevelt refused to congratulate or even send a telegram to Owens. Like the other African American athletes, Owens was refused an invitation to the White House to shake hands with the President - that honour was reserved only for white athletes. Speaking at a Republican rally in Baltimore in October 1936, Owens asserted:

"Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me. I am not knocking the President. Remember, I am not a politician, but remember that the President did not send me a message of congratulations because, people said, he was too busy."[5]

Like most of history, some of the exact detail remains unclear for Jesse Owens’ story in and after the 1936 Olympics. Though what was and remains crystal-clear is his immense character, ability and fortitude, transcending sport.


[1] [2] [3] Ibid. [4],6536771&dq=jesse-owens+hitler&hl=en [5]

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