80 years ago, Jesse Owens destroyed the Olympics' racial hierarchy and humiliated Hitler at the Berlin Games


The world in 1936 was nearly as fractured as it would become less than a decade later. Spain was mired in a civil war, fascism had not only invaded Germany, but Italy as well. Policies of official racism amplified and emboldened American racism. Moreover, following the German boxer Max Schmeling’s defeat of black American Joe Lewis, Hitler was given a propaganda item in the lead up to the election: Aryan supremacy is real. As a white sprinter dashed into the stadium and lit the Olympic flame to truly start the games, it must have appeared to all observers of the Berlin Olympics that Hitler might actually be right.

But there was no bigger moment for smashing the assumed racial superiority on display than the pure dominance of Jesse Owens at an Olympic games marketed by Hitler as what would seal the Aryan race atop the racial hierarchy. Owens—the son of a sharecropper and whose grandparents had been slaves—cruised to victory in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay, and long jump, thumbing his nose at the Fuhrer along the way (“Yes-say,” the crowds cheered in their Teutonic accents as Hitler and his entourage left the stadium in a huff), and become the first American to win four gold medals at a single Olympics.

But it was a brutal dictator’s racial theories that Owens really smashed. Hitler had spent considerable German resources to showcase white supremacy. To achieve these goals, the German Olympians had been organized in a military fashion, and trained accordingly. The team was “Aryan’s only,” with its lone Jewish member, Helene Mayer, a fencer who was allowed on the team because only her father was Jewish. In the end, like most host nations, Germany won a lot of medals, but the image of Aryan superiority was punctured for the world to see.

The Germans, and the rest of the field in those four events Owens dominated, would prove no match for the 22-year-old from Cleveland. Owens had operated an elevator while a student at Ohio State—the high school track star who’d set Amateur Athletic Union records had not received a scholarship. In his sophomore year, over the span of 45 minutes, he had broken three world records and tied a fourth. The Olympics would be a breeze in comparison with events staggered over a number of days.

On the first day of competition, following track victories by a white German and some Fins, Hitler set a precedent he would not keep, congratulating the winners personally in his box at the stadium. After two black Americans, Cornelius Johnson and Dave Albritton, won gold and silver in the high jump, Hitler and his aides left the stadium, and the glad-handing ceased for the rest of the games. The games would only go further off of Hitler’s script from there.

During a trial in the 100-meter dash, Owens had set a world-record, if ever so briefly—it was disallowed because of high winds. Setback aside, the stage was set for Owens to win gold in the event. Owens lead all the way, and tied the world record of 10.3 seconds.

The next day, later dubbed “Black Tuesday,” went like this: Owens starts the day off by setting a world-record in a heat for the 200-meter. A little while later, he qualifies for the long jump final. After lunch, he wins another 200-meter heat, tying his own record. Then he set off to the finals of the long jump where after a few rounds of jumps, a German by the name of Luz Long had somehow tied him.

On his second and third jumps of the finals, Owens became the first and second person to break the 26-foot barrier.

Long took silver and shook Owens’s hand, the two embraced, to the roars of approval from the crowd, and there’s even long been a myth that the two were pen pals until Long’s death in World War II.

The following day, Owens set about winning the 200-meter dash in routine fashion. Writing in The New York Times, Arthur Daley described Owen’s performance as “one of the most amazing achievements in the ancient art of foot racing. No one in history had broken even 21 seconds flat for the distance around a turn and here was this human bullet ripping off 0:20:7.”

By the time Owens received his third gold medal, Hitler had left the stadium (citing the inclement weather), much to the delight of the assembled foreign press.

Owens added his fourth medal leading off the men’s 4x100m relay team. He accounted for a third of all American gold medals. Unfortunately, even after besting a fascist and putting an end to Hitler’s notions of Aryan athletic supremacy, Owens returned to America to be made to feel unworthy. He would remark later in his life:

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. I wasn’t invited up to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either.

In 1976, forty years after his triumphs, and four years before his death, President Gerald Ford amended the mistakes of his six immediate predecessors by awarding Owens the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Owens was a hero in his life and his legend has only grown since his death in 1980. He, and fellow black medalists Cornelius Johnson and Dave Albritton, traveled to a nation that officially hated them for the color of their skin, representing a country that unofficially hated them for the same reason, and kicked all their asses.

David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: [email protected]

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