On this day in history, August 9, 1936, In a blow to Hitler’s plan to have the Berlin Olympics prove Aryan superiority, African American athlete Jesse Owens becomes the first Olympian to win four Olympic gold medals.
Born in 1913, Owens emerged as a major track talent while attending high school in Cleveland, Ohio. Later, at Ohio State University, he demonstrated himself to be one of the greatest athletes in the world. In a single day of competition on May 25, 1935, Owens broke the world records for the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles, and the running broad jump, and equaled the world record for the 100-yard dash. The next summer, Owens and 311 other American athletes, including 17 African Americans, traveled to Nazi Germany to represent the United States at the 11th Olympiad.
In 1931, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 Summer Olympics to Berlin. The choice was meant to signal Germany’s return to the world community after defeat in World War I. However, two years later, Adolf Hitler came to power and transformed the democratic German government into a dictatorship, purged political opponents and dissidents, instituted anti-Semitic policies, and began the remilitarization of Germany.
Hitler became an avid supporter of the Olympics after Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels convinced him of the value to be had on their behalf as an opportunity to advance Nazi ideology. In light of this finding, Hitler provided extensive funding for the Berlin Games which promised to be the largest modern Olympics to date. The Nazi government used sport as part of its drive to strengthen the “Aryan race,” and “Non-Aryans”–Jewish, part-Jewish, or Gypsy athletes–were systematically excluded from Nazi-sponsored sports facilities and associations.
A number of prominent Jewish athletes in the United States and other countries decided to independently boycott the Games in protest of Nazi oppression of Jews. Spain also planned an alternate “People’s Olympics” to be held in Barcelona in July 1936, but the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War forced its cancellation.
On August 1, 1936, Adolf Hitler opened the Olympic games and the now traditional appearance of a runner arriving bearing a torch occurred for the first time. The Nazis advertised this ceremony as a symbol of the myth that German civilization was the inheritor of the glorified culture of ancient Greece.
With 348 athletes, Germany had the largest national team and captured the most medals overall. America, however, dominated the track-and-field events. On the first day of competition, Hitler left the stadium shortly after three African Americans swept the high-jump event.
With his four gold medals, Jesse Owens was the star of the Berlin Olympics. He equaled the world record in the 100-meter race and broke the world records in the 200-meter and in the broad jump. He was enthusiastically applauded by the largely German crowd and developed a friendship with German long jumper and silver medalist Luz Long. However, he and other African American Olympians were demeaned by a Nazi newspaper that wrote of them as the “black auxiliaries” of the American team.
Although only 23, Jesse Owens retired from amateur competition shortly after the Berlin Olympics. He soon began making trips around the world to mentor and speak on behalf of African Americans and included some goodwill visits to Asia for the U.S. Department of State. Jessie Owens died in 1980.