On this day in 1990, Jesse Owens posthumously receives the Congressional Gold Medal. Owens is perhaps best known for his stunning performance at the 1936 Olympics, which were played in Nazi Germany just before World War II.
“Mr. Owens, who was black, scored a triumph that would come to be regarded as not only athletic but also political,” his obituary noted. “Adolf Hitler had intended the Berlin Games to be a showcase for the Nazi doctrine of Aryan supremacy.”
Instead, Hitler watched as Owens scored victory after victory.
Who would have known that the son of Alabama sharecroppers would turn out to be such a phenomenon?
Owens had spent his childhood helping in the cotton fields, attending school—and running. “I loved [running],” he would say, “because it was something you could do all by yourself . . . . fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.”
A move from Alabama to Ohio when Owens was just 9 years old proved life changing: He met two track coaches who recognized his raw talent and worked to nurture it. One even arranged early morning practices when after-school sessions were incompatible with Jesse’s jobs. The other, Larry Snyder, became a mentor at Ohio State.
Under Snyder’s tutelage, Owen shocked the athletic world at the Big Ten Championships in May 1935: He broke three world records and tied another, all within the space of a single hour. Even more impressively, he did it with an injured back! “That has to be the greatest hour in the history of track and field,” one professor wrote for Forbes, “and maybe even one of the greatest hours in the history of sports.”
Owens became a media sensation. By 1936, he was headed to the Olympics. He’d qualified in three events. As a black man—and an American—Owens had been prepared for a cold welcome in the German Olympic stadium. Instead, something unexpected happened: The crowd greeted him with a great cheer!
Hitler appeared uncomfortable.
The 100-meter competition would occur over the course of two days. Owens ran the final heats in 10.4 seconds (semi-finals) and 10.3 seconds (finals), a stunning feat on a rain-sodden track. Owens had earned his first gold.
“I can’t help wondering, if Herr Hitler was thinking about the racial superiority of pure Aryan strains as he saw the Midnight Express whip past,” one journalist commented.
The broad jump was scheduled for the next day. Owens would forever remember it: He’d made an unexpected friend. His German opponent, Luz Long, offered valuable advice at a critical moment during the qualifying round. It was an incredible act of sportsmanship—and it worked. Owens would go on to win the gold.
Long pumped Owens’s hand in the air after the event. Hitler watched it all.
You won’t be surprised to hear that Owens went on to shatter a world record for the 200-meter race; he earned another gold. A fourth gold in a relay capped everything off. Owens was an Olympic hero.
The wins weren’t without controversy, of course. Did Hitler snub Owens at the games? Maybe. And it would be years before a U.S. President formally acknowledged Owens’s accomplishment. But Owens knew what he had to do—and he did it.
“[T]he greatest moment that a person can have is to stand on a victory stand far away from home,” he later said, “and then, from the distance you can hear the strains of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and then suddenly you make a left turn and you see the Stars and Stripes rising higher and higher . . . . I think that’s the greatest moment of my whole athletic career.”
American Legends: The Life of Jesse Owens (Charles River Editors; 2015)
Jacqueline Edmondson, Jesse Owens: A Biography (2007)
Jeremy Schaap, Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics (2008)