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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Jesse Owens and the Urban Legend

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

Jesse Owens was an extraordinary athlete and a historical figure, despite himself. He was the most prolific medalist at the 1936 Berlin Games. The question often arises: Did Adolf Hitler refuse to shake his hand because of his skin color? Nothing seems less certain.

The Prodigal Athlete

Jesse Owens was a phenomenal athlete.
Jesse Owens in 1936

Born in 1913, Jesse Owens emerged from an extremely modest background as part of a large family with ten siblings. As a child, he battled severe rickets and struggled with illness and poverty every winter.

As a teenager, Owens discovered a passion for athletics, training in between school and work. His performances in inter-school championships were recognized, and he was awarded a scholarship. He then attended Ohio State University, all the while working to support himself.

Owens was an extraordinary athlete. He broke five world records at the national university championships on May 25, 1935. These resounding successes built his international reputation, leading him at age 22 to join the American Olympic team bound for Berlin.

Triumph in Berlin

The United States triumphs in athletics.
US 4x100m team

At the 1936 Summer Olympics, Jesse Owens triumphed in the long jump, 200 meters, 4x100 meters relay, and claimed victory in the ultimate event, the 100 meters. The Olympics, meant to celebrate Germany's racial superiority, saw a black man rise to the top. It's said that in his fury, Adolf Hitler avoided having to congratulate him.

This legend is powerful, but it was constructed after the fact. The German leader had refused to comply with the Olympic protocol, which called for all victorious athletes to be congratulated, regardless of their nationality. As a result, he ceased congratulating any participants, whether German or otherwise. Therefore, Owens was not ostracized by German officials due to his skin color. Quite the contrary. He was loved by the public and the press, and many spectators crowded the gates of the Olympic Village hoping to secure an autograph from the star of the Games.

The Racist Norm

Biological racism became a science in the Third Reich.
Racist propaganda in Hitler's Germany

How can we understand the relatively friendly attitude of Hitler's regime and German society towards Jesse Owens? Rather than contradicting the ethno-racialist concepts of the time, this attitude embodied "positive" racism that validated genetic differences between "races" and people. The Nazis accepted, even championed these differences. In March 1933, less than two months after coming to power, they established a Department of Racial Hygiene under the Ministry of the Interior.

While ethno-racialist concepts had existed in the Western world long before the Nazis' rise to power, they were the first to institutionalize the issue. So much so, researchers and regime ideologists agreed to intertwine politics and (pseudo) science into the same narrative. The fact that a black man could jump further or run faster than a white man simply confirmed genetic inequalities. But this did not mean that black people were appreciated in Hitler's Germany. They were considered inferior and were destined to remain at the bottom of human societies, or to be studied anthropologically, even to the point of considering human zoos. Owens was known for his athleticism, nothing else.

Back to Reality

Until the 1960s, the United States followed a strict racial separation in public space.
Racial segregation in the US

It was upon his return to the United States that Owens faced "negative" racism, specifically the segregated American society where black people had almost no civil rights. The country was living under the 'Jim Crow' regime, named after a song ridiculing black people and their customs. This system included racial separation in public spaces.

Though Owens had become a sports legend, he was still a black man descended from slaves. It was therefore natural that President Roosevelt refused to publicly receive him in the White House, so as not to offend the deeply racist southern electorate. Becoming a national hero that no one wanted to acknowledge, Owens was relegated to freak show status, competing in shows with animals. In an era when sport was predominantly amateur, this was his only means to capitalize on his fame, earn some money, and escape poverty.

As a result, he was banned from most subsequent sporting competitions on the grounds of 'professionalization.' Thereafter, he held a series of jobs around the country, leading a life full of ups and downs. He died at the age of 66 in 1980 from lung cancer. Posthumously, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.

An Ordinary Man Turned Symbol

Jesse Owens and Chancellor Willy Brandt met at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Jesse Owens and Willy Brandt in 1972

The life of Jesse Owens and his achievements at the Berlin Olympics remind us that history can be rewritten to create unifying myths, often necessary for constructing a national narrative.

The four gold medals won in 1936 should not overshadow the fact that Germany triumphed at these Olympics. It was the leading nation in terms of medals won. Furthermore, the Games occurred in a convivial atmosphere, with unprecedented professionalism that left a lasting impression on observers, who remained silent about the terror and discrimination in German society. Finally, it should be remembered that the Games were not meant to validate racist theories on the superiority of the "Aryan race," but to unite the people around their leader, promote a sense of national power, and gain international recognition.

Owens was an ordinary man who discovered and affirmed himself through sport. Politics didn't interest him; sport was all that mattered. His ideal was to find himself in the effort and to surpass himself in order to exist, which led him to befriend his German counterpart Luz Long, a finalist in the long jump event.

At the convergence of multiple historical factors, Owens became an atypical actor of his time, a phenomenal athlete, and a symbol that transcends him. In Berlin, he is seen as a symbol of opposition to Nazism, sometimes on par with Willy Brandt. Since 1984, a street next to the Olympic Stadium has been named in his honor.



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