Jesse Owens was generally considered to be the best sprinter and long jumper and one of the most famous athletes of his time. He won countless awards, trophies and championships. In 1935, at the Big Ten collegiate track and field championships he set three world records and tied a fourth all within a span of 45 minutes, a remarkable achievement. Furthermore, in 2000 a panel of experts at ESPN ranked him as the 6th best athlete of the 20th Century.
That said, his most remarkable performances came at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Those games were very significant and controversial not only athletically, but also politically and socially. As most of you know, 1936 was a time of considerable turmoil in the world. America was still in the grips of the Great Depression; racism and anti-Semitism were alive and well; Nazism was on the rise in Germany; and war was in the air in Europe. The Nazis were intent on using the Olympics to display Aryan supremacy to the world. But, Jesse single-handedly dashed any pretense at Aryan athletic supremacy. He won gold medals in the 100 and 200 meter dashes, the long jump and the 4X100 meter relay. An interesting footnote: one of the sprinters he beat in the 200 was Mack Robinson, the older brother of Jackie Robinson. Yes, THAT Jackie Robinson.
James Cleveland Owens was born on September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, the youngest of ten children. He was nicknamed JC. His parents were sharecroppers. When he was nine his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio (part of the so-called Great Migration of southern blacks seeking a better life up North). Supposedly, when his teacher asked him his name on the first day of school due to his heavy southern accent his “JC” sounded to her like “Jesse,” and the moniker “stuck.” He was “Jesse” from then on.
He was a track star in high school and at Ohio State. Known as the “Buckeye Bullet,” he won eight individual NCAA championships in his two years there. For some reason, he did not have a scholarship, so he worked his way through school. He made the 1936 US Olympic team as a sprinter and long jumper. Also, on the team were two Jewish sprinters, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller. More on them later.
The Games were marred by two controversies, which still resonate today.
Hitler appeared to snub Jesse intentionally. Briefly, it was his custom to congratulate each gold medal winner personally with a handshake. It was reported at the time that Hitler deliberately left the stadium early to avoid congratulating Jesse. Given Hitler’s well-known views towards blacks, this was very believable. Albert Speer, a well-known Hitler intimate, had shamelessly denoted that Hitler had said of blacks: “[their] antecedents came from the jungle [and were] primitive. Their physiques were [naturally] stronger than those of civilized whites and hence [they] should be excluded from the Games.” On the other hand, it should be noted that at the time Jesse, himself, had said that as he passed by Hitler’s box , he “waived at me and I waived back.” Owens always maintained that “Hitler didn’t snub me. It was [FDR] who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” Also, in 1936 the Baltimore Sun reported that Hitler sent Owens a commemorative inscribed photograph of himself. Then, in 2009 Siegfried Mischner, a German journalist, claimed he had seen a photograph that Jesse carried around of Hitler shaking his hand. In addition, in 2014 a highly decorated British fighter pilot named Eric Brown stated in a BBC documentary that he actually witnessed Hitler shaking Owens’ hand and congratulating him. So, there are two sides to this story. You can decide for yourself.
Perhaps, more significant was the treatment of the aforementioned Messrs. Glickman and Stoller. Glickman was a football and track star from Syracuse University. Stoller was a track star at Michigan. They had earned the right to run in the 4X100 relay. Yet, on the day of the race US track and field coaches informed them that they would be replaced by Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. Supposedly, the coaches were concerned that the Germans would be adding two world class runners to their relay team that they had been hiding. Nobody was fooled by this sham. World class athletes had been competing against eachother for years. They all knew eachother. Glickman supposedly said “Coach, you can’t hide world class sprinters.” When Owens told the coaches to “let Marty and Sam run. They deserve it,” the coach retorted “you’ll do as your told.” The American team won handily, so, Glickman and Stoller were deprived of running and winning a gold medal. Obviously, the US Olympic officials, led by Avery Brundage, replaced them so as not to embarrass Hitler by having two Jews win a gold medal. Years later, Glickman said he was able to find out that Joseph Goebbels had told Brundage that Hitler “would be very displeased if Jews were to race in ‘his’ Olympic Games,” and Brundage took it upon himself to order the coaches to replace Glickman and Stoller. This was an early example of Brundage’s callous attitude toward Jews (See the 1972 games in Munich.).