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How to annoy Hitler

Photograph of Jesse Owens (306-PSE-80-746)

Photograph of Jesse Owens (306-PSE-80-746)

Each of the German victories, and there were a surprising number of these, made [Adolf Hitler] happy, but he 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.
—Albert Speer Inside the Third Reich

Jesse Owens was the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves. After winning four gold medals and embarrassing Adolf Hitler in Berlin, FDR would not call him to congratulate him, nor would Truman. But for a moment in history, the racism that pervaded in the United States fell behind the Olympian as he ran for glory for the Stars and Stripes.

Owens made history well before 1936. In 1935, his reputation was established as one of the greatest runners in history. In the span of 45 minutes and suffering from a back injury, the African American runner set three world records and tied a fourth at a track meet in Ann Arbor, MI. He was a sophomore in college.

On August 2, the first day of competition at the 1936 games, Germany took its first gold in the shot put—its first in the modern games. Hitler called the victor Hans Woellke to his stand and shook his hand. He called other white medalists—Finnish gold medalists from the 10,000-meter run—and shook their hands, too. But then it was America’s turn. Cornelius Johnson and Dave Albritton, two African Americans, took first and second place in the high jump. They paced toward Hitler’s box, but by the time they arrived, Hitler had departed.

That same day, Owens had already set his first world record of the game in a trial heat. Though Hitler would not congratulate any black victors, the crowds felt differently and cheered on the fastest man at the games.

On August 3, Owens tied the world record at the 100-meter dash.

On August 4, he set the record for the 200-meter heat.

Later that afternoon, he won another 200-meter heat.

That same day, at the long jump he made the first 26-foot jump in Olympic history. Then he broke his own record and jumped even further. At the medal ceremony he stood at the top flanked by a German and a Japanese athlete.

On August 5, he took the gold medal at the 200-meter finals, breaking another world record.

Hitler had had enough and stormed out of the stadium. Not only had Owens received his third gold medal, but Lutz Long, the German who placed second to Owens in the long jump, had wrapped his arm around Owens and circled the stadium the day before to a chorus of applause from Hitler’s own people. Now the crowd was only louder.

Owens took his fourth and final medal on the final day of track and field at the 400-meter relay. Of the 12 Olympic gold medals that the United States took home, six of them were earned by African Americans.

Still, the homecoming was grim. There was a ticker-tape parade, but after the confetti had fallen, so did Owens’s fortune. He participated in gimmick races to make ends meet. Occasionally he would race horses (and win). Eventually, the Olympic hero filed for bankruptcy. “I came back to my native country and I couldn’t ride in the front of a 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.” (*)

History is not without its justice though. Eisenhower declared Owens an Ambassador to Sports. By 1955, he was a Goodwill Ambassador who traveled the world for the State Department. In 1976 Gerald Ford awarded Owens the highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, in a White House ceremony. Hitler’s grand illusion of white supremacy faded in his home country, and the unlawful institutionalized segregation that made Owens ride the freight elevator to his own reception at the Waldorf eventually ended. Today he is revered as a symbol of the human spirit and equality, his true place in history.

This week marks the runner’s 97th birthday. Owens died in 1980 from lung cancer. Peculiarly, the famous runner smoked a pack a day, though he was sure to avoid smoking on television where his youthful fans might see.

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