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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Jesse Owens and the urban legend

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

An extraordinary athlete and a historical figure in spite of himself, Jesse Owens was the most prolific medalist of the 1936 Berlin Games. Would Adolf Hitler have refused to shake his hand because of his skin colour? Nothing seems less certain.

The prodigal athlete

Jesse Owens was a phenomenal athlete.
Jesse Owens in 1936

Born in 1913, Jesse Owens came from an extremely modest background and a very large family, with 10 brothers and sisters. As a child, he suffered from severe rickets and struggled with illness and deprivation every winter.

As a teenager, he discovered a passion for athletics and trained between school and work. His performances in the inter-school championships were noticed and he obtained a scholarship. He then entered Ohio State University, while at the same time pursuing a professional activity to support himself.

He was an outstanding athlete, breaking five world records in the university's national championships on 25 May 1935. His resounding successes built his international reputation and led him, at the age of 22, to join the American Olympic team that was to go to 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, the 200 metres, the 4 x 100 metres relay and won the ultimate event, the 100 metres. The Olympics, which were to consecrate Germany's racial superiority, saw a black man triumph and, in his anger, Adolf Hitler would have shied away from having to congratulate him.

The legend is great but it has been rewritten after the fact. The German leader had refused to comply with Olympic protocol, which called for all victorious athletes to be congratulated, regardless of their nationality. As a result, he no longer congratulated any participant, whether German or not. Owens was therefore not ostracised by German officials because of his skin colour. On the contrary. He was adored by the public and the press, and many spectators flocked to the gates of the Olympic Village in the hope of getting 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? Far from being in contradiction with the ethno-racialist concepts of the time, it is in fact the mark of a "positive" racism, validating the genetic differences between "races" and peoples. The Nazis accepted and even claimed these differences. In March 1933, less than two months after their accession to power, they set up a Department of Racial Hygiene under the Ministry of the Interior.

Although ethno-racialist concepts existed in the Western world long before the arrival of the Nazis, the latter were the first to institutionalise the issue. So much so that researchers and regime ideologists agreed to combine politics and (pseudo) science in the same dynamic. So the fact that a black man jumps further or runs faster than a white man was simply a confirmation of genetic inequalities. This does not mean that Blacks were appreciated in Hitler's Germany. They were considered backward and were destined to remain in the lower echelons of human societies or to be studied anthropologically, including the idea of 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 on his return to the United States that Owens was confronted with "negative" racism, namely the segregated American society where black people had virtually no civil rights. The country lived under the 'Jim Crow' regime, named after a song that ridiculed black people and their customs; a system that included racial separation in public spaces.

Owens had become a sports legend but was still a black man descended from slaves. It was therefore quite natural that President Roosevelt refused to receive him publicly in the White House, so as not to offend the deeply racist southern electorate. Having become a national hero that no one wanted, Owens became a freak show, competing in shows with animals. At a time when sport was mainly amateur, this was the only way he could capitalise on his fame to earn some money and escape poverty.

As a result, he was banned from most subsequent sporting competitions on the grounds of 'professionalisation'. Thereafter, he had a series of jobs around the country and a life full of ups and downs. He died at the age of 66 in 1980 from lung cancer. He was posthumously 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 to construct a national narrative.

The four gold medals won in 1936 should not obscure the fact that it was Germany that triumphed at the Olympics. Sportingly, it was the leading nation in terms of medals won. On the other hand, the Games took place in a good-natured atmosphere and with an unprecedented professionalism that left a lasting impression on observers of the time, who were silent about the terror and discrimination in German society. Finally, it should be remembered that the Games were not intended to validate the racist theories on the superiority of the "Aryan race", but to unite the people around their leader, to give a feeling of national power and to obtain international recognition.

Owens was an ordinary man who discovered and affirmed himself through sport. Politics did not interest him: sport was the only thing that mattered. To find oneself in the effort and to surpass oneself in order to exist. An ideal that led him to befriend his German counterpart Luz Long, a finalist in the long jump event.

At the convergence of multiple historical factors, Owens is 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 a par with Willy Brandt. Since 1984, an alley next to the Olympic Stadium has been named after him.

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