In a time when racism was infecting Germany and segregation was commonplace in the U.S., one man shattered world records, bridging differences with speed and grace.
That man was Jesse Owens, a black track and field star from Cleveland, Ohio, who had been breaking records since his high school days. On Aug. 4, 1936, at the Olympic Games in Berlin, he not only shattered a record, he foiled some of Hitler’s propaganda plans.
Berlin had already won the bid to host the 1936 Olympics, a few years after the Nazi Party rose to power. It was a gesture of inclusion on behalf of the Olympic committee after Germany was devastated by World War I, but fascism was gaining ground in Germany as the Olympics approached.
In response to reports of Jewish athletes being banned from competing on the German Olympic teams, the U.S. and other countries threatened to boycott the 1936 Games.
Many Americans even began calling the 1936 event “The Nazi Games.”
“The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed or race,” the president of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, responded to Germany’s persecution of Jewish athletes, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia.
However, many black athletes thought the boycott was arbitrary because they suffered racism at home on a daily basis. They viewed the Olympics as a place to transcend racism and change ideas about what it meant to be an American.
Since Germany wanted to avoid a boycott, they promised to include Jewish athletes on their Olympic teams and refrain from promoting Nazi ideology during the Games.
After much deliberation, it was eventually decided that the U.S. would compete.
Germany pretended to put on a show of tolerance and strength as the Olympics host. Nazi propaganda was hidden. Anti-Semitic imagery was temporarily removed. Germany’s 1936 Olympic team included one Jewish athlete, fencer Helene Mayer. But of course, this was nothing but a charade — a form of propaganda in itself. Of course, the Third Reich intended to use the very first televised Olympics (a big deal for all involved) to their advantage.
Not only was Hitler going to show the world he was building a master race, he was going to make a film about it.
He employed Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to film the 1936 Games.
The footage was indeed released in two parts, titled “Olympia Part I: Festival of the Nations” and “Olympia Part II: Festival of Beauty.” The two films were released in 1938, showcasing the Nazi ideal of athletic Aryan bodies, cultivated into machines ready to serve the state.
But here’s the thing — as much as Riefenstahl tried to follow her mandate to show Aryan supremacy and not include footage of black athletes, Owens made the final cut. In fact, he makes direct eye contact with the camera before his long jump win.
Even Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite propagandist, couldn’t hide the truth of Owens’ amazing athletic talents.
Owens’ defiant move followed by a series of wins effectively dashed Hitler’s dreams of declaring German superiority.
On Aug. 3, 1936, he won the gold medal in the 100-meter dash event. The next day, he won the long jump and then the 200-meter sprint on Aug. 5. On Aug. 9, Owens won the gold for the 4×100-meter sprint relay. The medal sweep was a record-breaking feat and was not repeated until 1984.
With only his speed, Owens managed to prove Hitler’s racist theories wrong.
Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect and one of his ministers, wrote in his memoir, “Inside the Third Reich” that “[Hitler] was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens.”
In the end, it wasn’t German Olympic victories that made the news, it was Jesse Owens.
Between the filming and the “Olympia” release, any interest Hollywood previously had in Riefenstahl’s film was disrupted. Eventually, the film was recut into instructional videos for British military recruits. The Nazi material was removed.
Sports have a way of bridging gaps and bringing people of all different backgrounds together, from the athletes, to the cheap seats. Whether it’s athletes from countries across the world competing in the Olympic Games or parents cheering for their child’s baseball game, both spectators and players come together as a team to perform or to cheer.
Though the U.S. still had huge strides to make, and the atrocities of Nazi Germany had yet to be revealed, Owens for a brief moment triumphed over the racism of the 1930s. Breaking records and defying expectations, he became an American hero and a legend shared over the decades.
His historic win carries a message we should take into the present day. Racism has no place in society. It leads to the darkest of places. But discrimination and intolerance is outshined by truth even in the most unexpected times.