On this day in 1980, the country mourns the loss of Jesse Owens. He is perhaps best remembered for his stunning performance at the 1936 Olympics in Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
Owens was a star of the Ohio State track team. He’d trained hard, traveled with his team, and broken several world records. But the media attention that followed his accomplishments created diversions. He began to falter. (See yesterday’s post.). Commentators began to wonder if Owens had peaked too soon.
Thankfully, he hadn’t. Owens returned home to Ohio, married his high school sweetheart, and regained his focus. He was soon on his way to the 1936 Olympics. He’d qualified in three events.
Owens wouldn’t see his wife and daughter for two long months. He fought seasickness on his voyage across the Atlantic. He didn’t even have running shoes when he arrived! His coach would scour Berlin stores, looking for shoes. None of it fazed Owens. He was excited just to be there.
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. In the first heat, Owens matched his own world record of 10.3 seconds. He ran it even faster in the quarterfinals—10.2 seconds. (The time wasn’t counted as a world record because of the tail wind.) The final two races were run the next day, after an overnight rain. The track wasn’t as fast, but Owens still ran the race in 10.4 seconds (semi-finals) and 10.3 seconds (finals).
It was a stunning feat, given the condition of the 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 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. Different people saw different things and perceived them differently. For his part, Owens wasn’t too concerned. “Although I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler,” he would say, “I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either.”
Sadly, it would be years before a U.S. President would formally acknowledge 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)