When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.Jesse Owens
The son of sharecroppers and the grandson of slaves, Jesse Owens was born in Alabama in 1913 and his childhood was spent working in the fields with his family. It was only when he moved to Ohio that he became a major track-and-fields athlete while attending high school in Cleveland.
When the United States left for Berlin and the XI Olympic Games in 1936, he was one of the 17 African American athletes in the US 311 athletes delegation.
A phenomenal Propaganda for the Aryan Race
In 1931, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 Summer Games to Berlin. The WWI post-war years had been terrible for Germany. Condemned to pay huge war debts, left out from many international organizations, including the Society of Nations, Germany had struggled with economic and social issues and with a mounting resentment towards everyone.
In later years the pressure on Germany had lessened and the assignment of the Olympic Games was meant to be a signal of Germany’s return to the world community.
Nobody foresaw that in 1933 the Weimar Republic would fall and Hitler would come to power.
Initially, Hitler disregarded the Games as unimportant in his overall political action, but Joseph Gobbles later convinced him that the Games could be used as a phenomenal propaganda of the superiority of the Aryan race in an international context.
The Third Reich then moulded the Games into a completely new experience. The most modern architectures, show techniques and marketing skills were used. Cinema was heavily involved. Leni Riefentahl documented the event in a modern, gorgeous film. It was a spectacular show like never was seen before… but it would be seen many times afterward. The Berlin Games set the blueprint for the Opening Ceremony as we still know it today. In fact one of the most characteristic experiences of the Games as we know them, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron with a torch carried by relay form Olympia, was first performed in Berlin.
By 1935 many nations were planning to boycott the Games in Berlin. The US participation was narrowly approved in December of that year. In the end 41 nations took part at the Games.
With 348 athletes, Germany had the largest national team and captured the most medals overall, but Americans dominated the track-and-fields competitions, which were the most popular.
The story is often simplified to just saying that Hitler refused to shake hands with Jesse Owens after one of his victories. What actually happened was that on the first day of competitions, Hitler left the stadium after three African Americans swept the high-jumps competitions, so it is unclear whether he left to avoid shaking hands with them. After that, he was required to either shake hands with all winners or with none and he chose the latter. However he continued receiving German winners privately.
Jesse Owens was the star of the Berlin Games and was enthusiastically supported by the largely German audience. He won 4 gold medals, more than any athletes ever before. He broke two world records and set the record for broad jump that would last 25 years.
And after the Games, ages only 23, he retired from athletics forever.
In True Olympic Spirit
It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating to the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long.Luz Long
Luz Long was a broad jumper in the German team. He was tall, athletic, blond, pale-eyed. Basically the epitome of the Aryan race as the Nazi Party promoted it through the Games.
The story as you will hear it more often, as Owens told it many times goes like this: He olmost missed the qualification for the broad jump. Owens fouled his first two attempts. He only had one left and if he fouled that too, he would be out. Before he jumped, Luz Long, one of his German competitors, approached him and gave him an advice on how to carry the jump. Owens followed his advice… and later won a gold medal and set that 25-standing world records.
There are doubts that the story is true, that the two athletes ever spoke before Owens’s jump, but there is no doubt Long, who won silver, was the first to compliment Owens. No doubts the two became friends and remained friends ‘til the day Long died in 1943, fighting for Germany in WWII.
A final letter to Owens reads, in part:
Someday find my son… tell him about how things can be between men on this earth.Lyz Long
NPR – Was Jesse Owens’ 1936 Long-Jump Stroy a Myth?
Bio – Jesse Owens – Track and Field Athlete (1913-1980)
History – This Day in History 9th August 1936: Owens Wins 4th Gold Medals
Letters of Note – Tell Him About His Father
History in the Headlines – 10 Things You May Not Know About Jesse Owens