|Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games|
July 16, 2012
Jesse Owens Overcame Much to Dispel Aryan Supremacy Myth
Hitler had prepared Germany well for the Olympic Games. He had stoked National pride by erecting fantastic facilities for the games and preparing his German athletes to win in every event. It was the first time the hosting Olympic city had built an Olympic village, which consisted of housing facilities for the foreign visiting athletes. German athletes had trained long and hard to compete aggressively in all events, even ones that they historically had never won. A newly constructed Autobahn system of highways impressed foreigners with its modernity. Zeppelins, huge hydrogen-filled airships, added to the spectacle.
Hitler had garnered power by preaching a flawed doctrine called ‘Aryan Supremacy.’ It was that the Nordic derived white race was superior to all other world races, which he called ‘subhuman.’ Hitler claimed the role of custodian of human culture and planned to eliminate all other races. He orchestrated the efforts of his police to systematically ‘remove’ more than 6 million Jews, gypsies, blacks, Slavs, communists, Catholics and other human ‘animals.’ The Nazi regime would do this by shooting, hanging, gassing and/or burning. The Olympic Games of 1936 were a chance for the German people to validate Hitler’s belief in Aryan superiority.
When Jesse Owens arrived in Germany for the games, he was a bit unnerved by the evident disdain for his race by the German people. Growing up in Alabama as the youngest son of 10 children to a poor sharecropper, he was used to poor treatment by whites. Daily he worked in the fields his dad cultivated, perhaps near where his grandfather had labored as a slave. He picked cotton, and planted and harvested vegetables. His poor diet created health problems as a child, including Bronchitis that often turned into Pneumonia. He also suffered from boils that appeared on his chest and legs. His mother would cut them out with a hot kitchen knife, since they had no money to see a doctor. He once stepped in a steel hunting trap, another time he was run over by a wagon. It was amazing that he survived his childhood, and even more astounding that he became an Olympic Athlete.
When Jesse was 9, the family moved to Cleveland Ohio to seek a better life. Everyone took a job, even young Jesse, and the family pooled their resources to succeed where they couldn’t in the segregated South. It was here that his new teacher heard ‘Jesse’ instead of ‘J.C.’ when he introduced himself in his thick southern drawl. He went by Jesse after that. In his spare time, Jesse loved to run. He became a wonderful runner and athlete, with the help of his Junior High School coach. Coach Riley saw potential in this young man and allowed him to practice before school so he could skip afternoon practice to work at his job at the shoe repair shop.
Jesse thrived socially, making friends with his ‘winsome smile and gregarious personality.’ He was even elected student body president in his senior year! In addition, he was voted captain of the track team. He tried out for the 1932 Olympic Games, but failed to qualify. Undeterred, he said that he had gained valuable experience by trying out.
After high school, Jesse attended Ohio State University. The school did not give him a scholarship, so Jesse had to work to pay his tuition as a freight elevator operator. He worked hard in his schoolwork, his job and training for the track season and continued to improve under the guidance of quality coaches.
Jesse was well prepared to compete in the Berlin Games in 1936. He was poised to win several events on the track. The German team had never won a gold medal in track and field events, yet a German athlete won the first event—the shot-put. The German crowd erupted in applause and support. Some even shouted ‘Heil’ and the stadium roared. Jesse and the American team had to do their absolute best to beat the well-trained Germans on their soil.
As Jesse competed in his events, he won over the crowd with his down-to-earth humor and disarming smiles. He became a crowd favorite, mingling with the spectators and signing autographs. The German people loved him and began to cheer for him when he competed. Jesse broke an Olympic record when he won the 100 meter dash—and his first gold medal. The German crowd cheered him on. He broke another Olympic record and won the 200 meter and Long Jump gold medals. And he was a runner on the 4x100 relay team that took gold. In total, Jesse won four Olympic gold medals at the Berlin Olympic games. This made him the most successful athlete at the Olympic games.
As the world watched, Jesse showed the German people that his race was not inferior. Biographer Tony Gentry wrote, “The racial hatred that the Nazi Leader (Hitler) had been trying to inspire for almost a decade was negated in ten seconds by a black man who established a love relationship with the Olympic spectators.”
The odds against Jesse Owens were steep but surmountable to a determined young man. Surviving poor health and nutrition, disease and poverty, and racial oppression, Jesse nonetheless made himself into an Olympic Gold-winning athlete. His positive attitude and good nature made him a fantastic role model to the world when he showed his athletic prowess during the Berlin Olympic games, remarkably set in Hitler’s Germany.
We can do amazing things against steep odds if we work hard and keep trying.
Read more at:
Harris, Gerald, Olympic Heroes—World Class Athletes Winning at Life, pgs. 91-100.
Photo is a reproduction from "Die Olympischen Spiel 1936" pg. 27, 1936. U.S. Public Domain, Copyright Expired.