Fastest Man Prevails Over Evil: James “Jesse” Owens vs. Adolf Hitler

Jesse Owens Faces the 1936 Berlin Games Head On | Courtesy of WXXIgopublic

Winner of the Spring 2017 StMU History Media Awards for

Best Article in the Category of “People”

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Hitler quickly turned Germany’s fragile Weimar democracy into a one-party dictatorship. During his rule, Hitler pursued a plan to harass one half-million German Jews to leave Germany. Hitler promoted a “master race” scheme that sought to keep the so-called Aryan race pure from racial contamination from all other races he deemed to be inferior. This Aryan race consisted of only Germanic peoples who had the characteristics of blond hair, blue eyes, and light colored skin. Three years after taking power, Hitler hosted the 1936 Olympics in the German capital of Berlin. This was his opportunity to put his “New Germany” on display for all the world to see.

Adolf Hitler becoming Chancellor in 1933 | Courtesy of History Resource Cupboard

As Hitler’s Nazi government prepared for these Olympics, athletes from the United States were also preparing themselves for the coming competition in Berlin. In the United States, African Americans were dealing with their own problems of racism. Not only was life hard as an African American in the 1930s, but life was even harder as an African American athlete. One African American, who would later become one of the most famous athletes in the history of Track and Field, was James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens. At the age of eight, he had moved to Cleveland, Ohio with his family, who had sought for better work and educational opportunities. “On his first day of school, he introduced himself as ‘J. C.,’ but his teacher misunderstood him to say “Jesse.” The young Owens bashfully accepted the mistake, thus taking on the name by which he would become famous.”1 Jesse Owens would grow up loving to run. He was the fastest runner in his school and loved competing against others. His dream was to attend the University of Michigan, but there were no scholarships offered in those days and his parents could not afford tuition. Instead, he attended Ohio State University, where he worked for the boosters to pay for his expenses.

In the Summer of 1936, at the Olympic trials, Jesse finished first in all three of the events that he competed in. He had trained hard in the preceding months, and the hard training paid off, allowing Owens to attend the Olympics of 1936, known as “The Nazi Games” or as “Hitler’s Games.” In actuality, these Olympic games were not originally intended to be games hosted by the Nazis:  the “Nazis were never invited to host the Games—and probably never would have applied to do so. Instead, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had awarded the Olympics to Germany’s Weimar Republic in 1931 before the Nazi takeover as a way of welcoming Germany back to sports respectability.”2

Jesse Owens crosses the finish line in the 100-Meter dash | Courtesy of Sport and Culture

Ironically, Adolf Hitler knew nothing about sports and expressed little interest in hosting the Olympics; instead he wished to host an all-German athletic celebration. “But Dr. Josef Goebbels, the influential minister of propaganda, glimpsed how Germany might score a tremendous public-relations coup and convinced Hitler to support both the Winter and Summer Games.”3 Influenced by Dr. Josef Goebbels, Hitler used these Olympic games as a political relation with other countries.

Several weeks after the Olympic trials, Jesse Owens competed in the Berlin Olympics and made a name for himself. He won four gold medals, in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relays, and in the long jump. Jesse Owens had set records and represented America in a humble and most respectable way, considering the circumstances. Even though many have claimed that Adolf Hitler refused to congratulate Jesse Owens, others go further by claiming that Hitler actually “snubbed” Owens:

By the end of that fabulous week in Berlin, an attractive yarn attached itself to the name of Jesse Owens. Supposedly, he was ‘snubbed’ by Adolf Hitler, who reportedly refused to congratulate him publicly after his victories. Actually, the story was concocted by American sportswriters, who were all too willing to read the worst of motives into Hitler’s behavior and to assume innocent excellence from America’s newest hero. Although it had no basis in fact, the story of ‘Hitler’s snub’ was repeated so often that people took it as truth. It remains one of the great anecdotes of American popular culture.4

The Jesse Owens Plaque at Ferry Field at the University of Michigan | Courtesy of U-M Athletics

Racism was as alive in the United States as it was overseas in Germany in the 1930s. German Jews were a persecuted minority in the 1930s, and African Americans were experiencing similar treatments of racism in 1930s America. “World reaction to Hitler’s program resulted in a movement to boycott Nazi goods and services, which included a movement to take away the 1936 Olympics from Berlin in an attempt to force the German government to cease its discriminatory practice against the Jews.”5 It was not until the United States entered World War II that sentiment against racism began to penetrate the American social consciousness. Even though Owens continued to face white racism in his own country subsequent to his Olympic victories, he later reflected on his experiences of racism: “What I’ve done is no more than countless other Negros (and Jews, Poles, Greeks and just Americans in general) have done…. I’ve been a Negro in America for fifty-seven years, and I want to tell you that [being black in America] can be pure hell at times and can shake anyone’s sureness. Often it’s worse if you were the world’s fastest human.”6 When Owens returned to the United States after the Olympics, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to acknowledge his accomplishments or even invite him into the White House. It was not until 1979 that President Jimmy Carter presented Jesse Owens with the Living Legend Award. Forty-three years after his Olympic victories, Jesse Owens had finally been properly recognized for his great achievements.

Despite all the controversy that Jesse Owens encountered while doing what he loved, he is a true representation of perseverance and determination. Jesse Owens passed away in March of 1980 from lung cancer.

 

  1. Salem Press Biography Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Jesse Owens,” by William J. Baker.
  2. John Rodden and John P. Rossi, “Berlin Stories,” Commonweal 143, no. 13 (August 12, 2016): 25.
  3. John Rodden and John P. Rossi, “Berlin Stories,” Commonweal 143, no. 13 (August 12, 2016): 26.
  4. Salem Press Biography Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Jesse Owens,” by William J. Baker.
  5. D. A. Kass, “The Issue of Racism at the 1936 Olympics,” Journal of Sports History, no. 3 (1976): 223.
  6. Joseph Boskin, “Jesse Owens: Running in the American Dilemma,” Review in American History, no. 3 (1987): 457.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

155 Responses

  1. This is the first time I read about Jesse Owens and his achievements. It is interesting to know a little more about American culture. The fact of knowing that it has not been recognized until more recent times makes me lament. He having won 4 gold medals is simply incredible, and it is a pity that he has not caused a great impact during its time. Owens received a very unfair treatment.

  2. It’s troubling to think that even though we had a representative of the USA win gold medals for us it mattered what skin tone he had in order to be able to congratulate him. I think that even though it was close to half a century later, he was at least recognized by President Carter for his accomplishments and standing up and racing to his best ability despite racial discrimination.

  3. I remember when I was in the 10th grade, I read the Book Thief as it was the required reading for my english reading. The main protagonist’s best friend idolized Jesse Owens for his record-breaking accomplishments at the games and the way he stood up to Hitler. Jesse Owens was an icon. He completely defied Hitler’s rhetoric by winning 4 gold medals.

  4. I find it extremely disappointing that I have never heard of Jesse Owen’s achievements, especially considering his fight to earn a prestigious spot on the olympic team as well as with prejudice. It is extremely saddening that he was not recognized until somewhat recently, by president Jimmy Carter. I cannot imagine having to deal with so much hate from my own country’s people while trying to represent my country, I do not think that I could have that much personal courage or determination. In the end it just goes to show you that people will really continue to do what they love even if they are not necessarily appreciated.

  5. I have never heard of Jesse Owens until reading this article. He is easily one of the greatest athletes o ever live on earth. To win 4 gold medals is truly such great thing to do for our country and to represent it. Even though he won the medals he didn’t get invited at all to the white house to see president Roosevelt.

  6. What a true legend, I never heard of Jesse Owns before I read this informative article! I’m disappointed that president Roosevelt didn’t even commend him, winning 4 golds for the United States and not even being praised by the president must be a bummer. At least Owens was able to knock Hitler’s “Aryan master race” ramblings down a peg or two.

  7. Jesse Owens is one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen. What he was able to do at those Olympics is incredible. The four gold medals are amazing, but what he did, to stand out and stand up like he did at those games with Hitler is what makes him remembered. I never knew that when Jesse Owens returned to the US President Roosevelt refused to invite him to the White House. That shocked me, and made me sad for our country. I’m glad that we have moved on from that, for the most part at least.

  8. Jesse Owens is an amazing athlete. He was able to compete at one of the most difficult stages and the way he did it was incredible. Everyone knows that Hitler was a major leader, but what some may not know is that he was very angry at the fact that an African American was able to best his Country during the Olympic games. He won an outstanding 4 gold medels as Hitler watched him do it. It showed Hitler that maybe his superior race was not so superior at all.

  9. As soon as I read the title I was immediately captivated because when I think of the world’s fastest man, my mind goes straight to Usain Bolt. But after reading this article and reading about Jesse Owens, I realized that there was more to this story than just competing at the Olympics and winning a race, it was about winning the race versus racism and to see how far this sport has come is truly inspiring.

  10. This was a very well-written and captivating article. I enjoyed hearing more about Jesse Owen’s achievements in the face of adversity. He accomplishments were instrumental in the progression of acceptance of African American athletes in professional sports. He also helped make a statement in the fight against racism around the world. It is a story of athletic dominance and determination. I really enjoyed how informative and interesting this article was. Truly a great read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.