It was the summer of 1936 and Nazism was running rampant throughout pre-World War II Eastern Europe. The Olympics were coming to Berlin and Adolf Hitler viewed it as a golden opportunity to showcase his country and prove to the rest of the world that his Aryan race was superior. Not so fast, Adolf.
Twenty-two-year-old American Jesse Owens didn’t care much for Hitler’s politics—or any politics for that matter. He just wanted to show off his immense skills and represent his country to the best of his abilities. Just over a year earlier, on May 25, 1935, Owens recorded one of the more mind-boggling performances in track and field history. He broke three world records and tied another at the Big Ten Track and Field Championships in Michigan—in just 45 minutes!
Hitler viewed African-Americans as inferior and chastised the United States for stooping to use these “non-humans.” Despite the endless racial epithets and the constant presence of the red and black swastika, Owens made Hitler eat his words with four gold medals.
Owens Hits Gold
The first gold was in the 100 meters, where Owens edged out teammate Ralph Metcalfe in a time of 10.3 seconds.
Gold number two came in the long jump, where he fouled on his first two attempts. One was just a practice run where he continued down the runway into the pit, but German officials didn’t buy it and counted it as a jump. Top German long jumper Luz Long suggested Owens play it safe and jump a few inches before the usual take-off spot. He took his advice and qualified for the finals, where he won the gold with a leap of 26—5½. And Long was there to congratulate him. “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens would later say. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”
The third gold was in the 200-meter dash, where he defeated, among others, Jackie Robinson’s older brother Mack and broke the Olympic record with a time of 20.7 seconds.
Gold number four was a controversial one—not with the Germans, but with his fellow Americans. American Jews Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller were supposed to run for the United States on the 4×100 relay team. At the last minute, they were replaced by Owens and Metcalfe and it was reported that Hitler asked U.S. officials not to embarrass him any further by having two Jews win gold in Berlin. Whether that’s true or not, the Owens-led U.S. team rolled to victory in a world record time of 39.8 seconds and Owens’ magical Olympics came to a close.
While German officials denounced Owens, an overwhelming majority of the German fans treated him like a hero. In 1984, a street in Berlin was named in his honor.