On this day in history, James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens wins the 200 m sprint in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, his third gold medal of the games. Owens and his performance over the course of the Berlin Olympics would see him win four gold medals in total. He is recognized as one of the greatest track and field athletes ever to live.
The year before the Olympics in Berlin, he set three world records and tied for another, all in under an hour in Ann Arbor, Michigan at the 1935 Big Ten track meet, a triumph that has been called “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport.” This accomplishment positioned Owens to achieve legendary status in the upcoming Summer Olympics in Berlin.
The stage was set for a worldwide onslaught of propaganda by the new Reich Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. He had a new 100,000 seat capacity “Reichssportfeld” built to upstage the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. This would be the first ever Olympics to be televised, with broadcasts reaching 41 countries. The German Olympic Committee also commissioned filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to film the duration of the games. The film, Olympia would be the first documentary film ever made of the Olympic Games.
The opportunity to promote the Nazi’s views on anti-Semitism and racial superiority was coming into full realization. The official newspaper of the Nazi party wrote prior to the games that Jews and minorities should not be permitted to participate in the upcoming games. Under threat of other nations boycotting the games, Hitler acquiesced.
The Olympic Games in Berlin were meant to be the defining moment on the world stage for Hitler, to finally prove to the world the supposed Aryan supremacy. But a 22-year-old African American man from Alabama would go on to show the world, that this was not the case. In an article titled “Hitler Salutes Owens,” Robert L. Vann famously wrote of Owens:
And then … wonder of wonders … [sic] I saw Herr Adolf Hitler, salute this lad. I looked on with a heart which beat proudly as the lad who was crowned king of the 100 meters event, get an ovation the like of which I have never heard before. I saw Jesse Owens greeted by the Grand Chancellor of this country as a brilliant sun peeped out through the clouds. I saw a vast crowd of some 85,000 or 90,000 people stand up and cheer him to the echo.”
Featured image: 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, award ceremony in long jump: Owens (middle, USA) 1st, Tajima (left, Japan) 3rd, Long (right, Germany) 2nd. | Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons