The Olympics have long been the center of attention in the sports world, but perhaps no moment in the history of the games was as poignant as Jesse Owens' performance in Berlin in 1936. Owens would finish his career with four gold medals and become known as "perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history" (as his obituary in The New York Times put it), but nearly 80 years later, it's the context that has made his performance so memorable.
Owens was one of the greatest track athletes in the country in the 1930s, and while he was at Ohio State, he set three world records and tied another one within 45 minutes at a Big 10 meet in 1935, but hurdles on the track weren't as hard to clear as ones he had to deal with away from sports. As a young black man, he had to deal with entrenched racism across the country, from staying in segregated hotels to not being eligible for a sports scholarship.
In 1936, World War II was still a few years away, but Adolf Hitler was fully in control of Nazi Germany and hoped to use the Olympics as a showcase of the resurgent German nation. Internationally, Hitler's Germany was not yet a major concern to the vast majority of people unfamiliar with politics, nor were the domestic policies being carried out by the Nazis, but some still thought the United States should not even participate in the Olympics that year.
Of course, those who wanted to boycott the games could not have known what Jesse Owens had in store in Berlin. Given the unabashed racism of Hitler's regime, Jesse Owens' performance would end up being a rebuke of sorts to Hitler's notion of Aryan superiority, and an apocryphal legend has since sprung up that Hitler left the games early to avoid having to shake Owens' hand. While that reputed snub almost certainly did not occur, one Nazi official did note that Hitler "was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games."
Owens' performance and the focus over whether Hitler snubbed him also obscured one of the most ironic aspects of Owens' life and sports career. In fact, while some were asserting that Hitler did actually congratulate Owens, others pointed out that Owens was treated better in Germany than he was back at home, where he had to ride in a freight elevator to a reception in his honor and didn't hear from President Roosevelt following the games. Owens himself pointed out, "Hitler didn't snub me - it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram." Indeed, Owens would find it hard to get by for the rest of his life, much of which was spent trying to capitalize off commemorations of his past exploits by resorting to gimmicks such as racing against horses. The situation led him to bitterly remark, "People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals."
©2016 Charles River Editors (P)2016 Charles River Editors