In 1933, shortly after coming to power as Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler put forward his plan to turn the 1936 Summer and Winter Olympics into showcases for his regime. He ordered the construction of a massive new stadium in Berlin and funneled funds towards the completion of an airport to accommodate international visitors.
Additionally, the Summer Games were supposed to be the first to reach audiences around the world via television, as well as the first to feature the now traditional element of the Olympic Torch Relay.
Of course, while the Olympics are ostensibly designed to bring together a multitude of races and cultures in a competitive spectacle, the Führer had little use for such notions of unification. In fact, he deliberately damaged his country’s chances of success by keeping Jews out of clubs and sporting events, thereby eliminating potential Olympic medalists like high jump Gretel Bergmann.
Hitler viewed African-American runway stars as a threat
Meanwhile, Jesse Owens had emerged as an athletic sensation in the United States. He tied the world record for 100 yards while still in high school, and his performance at the Big Ten Championships of 1935, in which he set three world records and tied a fourth in 45 minutes, remains the one of the most extraordinary achievements in the history of collegiate sport.
He wasn’t the only African American athlete making waves. Ralph Metcalfe was a silver medalist at the 1932 Olympics and at one point shared the 100-meter world record.
And a Temple University sprinter named Eulace Peacock became a very formidable opponent of Owens, even beating him several times head-to-head in 1935, before suffering a hamstring injury that dashed his 1936 Olympic hopes. .
The United States almost boycotted the 1936 Olympics
Owens almost didn’t get the chance to make Olympic history. With U.S. policymakers aware of Hitler’s discriminatory policies against Jews – but not yet aware of the scale of the horrors to come – a fierce debate raged over whether to boycott the 1936 games.
Amateur Athletic Union president Jeremiah Mahoney argued that participation amounted to support for the Third Reich, but he was overtaken by the president of the US Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, who insisted that the Games were for athletes and not for politicians.
Like other elite black athletes who grew up in an unequal society, Owens viewed the moral stance against Germany as hypocritical and was not inclined to give up the chance to shine on the world stage. He eventually expressed his desire to compete in the Games, a position that drew condemnation from African-American publications and from NAACP chief Walter White.
Owens became the first American to win four gold medals in track and field
From the start, Owens took the reins as star of the 1936 Summer Olympics. He won a gold medal in his first event, the 100 meters, and followed with a much publicized victory over the champion. German Luz Long in the long jump (an event embellished by the great story of Long offering advice to help his opponent win).
After setting an Olympic record in the 200-meter en route to a third gold medal, Owens put the exclamation mark on his performance by running the first leg of a record-breaking 4×100 relay performance in the United States. He became the first American of all races to win four gold medals in athletics in a single Olympics, a feat that was not accompanied until Carl Lewis matched him in 1984.
Although it was widely reported that Hitler had “snubbed” Owens for overshadowing his valued Aryan athletes, in reality he responded to a request to treat winners equally and refused to publicly congratulate anyone. after the first day of competition. Other reports indicated that the Fuhrer greeted Owens from afar, possibly influenced by the adoring reception the athlete received from fans.
Despite Hitler’s snub, Owens left a global legacy
As with Hitler’s so-called snub, the narrative of the 1936 Olympics has been softened and simplified over the years. Despite the achievements of Owens and his teammates, Germany could still claim sporting superiority by winning the most medals.
Most importantly, the Games were successful as a form of propaganda, highlighting the Nazi Party as welcoming and orderly even as it was on the verge of starting another war and exterminating millions of Jews.
On a personal level, the Olympics spotlight was an outlier in the career of Owens, who reverted to the cold reality of being a black man in the America of the Great Depression. His business opportunities failing to materialize, he was forced to run against horses and do other degrading jobs for years, until he finally took a hiatus as a government ambassador in the past. 1950s.
Yet the story of his triumphant performance in these Games lives on. While he did not stop the machinations of the Nazi regime, Owens undoubtedly stole the show from the zealous leader of the host country.
Additionally, he showed that the black man can thrive with the eyes of the world on him, an effort that paved the way for future African-American sports stars like baseball’s Jackie Robinson, and pushed the door a bit. larger for the civil rights movement to eventually emerge.