Jesse Owens wins gold in Nazi Germany, 1936

Jesse Owens salutes during the presentation of his gold medal for the long jump, after defeating Germany's Lutz Long during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Jesse Owens salutes during the presentation of his gold medal for the long jump, after defeating Germany’s Lutz Long during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
In 1936 Jesse Owens arrived in Berlin to compete for the United States in the Summer Olympics. Adolf Hitler was using the games to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. Nazi propaganda promoted concepts of “Aryan racial superiority” and depicted ethnic Africans as inferior. Owens countered this by winning four gold medals.

Nevertheless, Hitler personally penned a letter to Owens to congratulate him on his spectacular victories. This is more than what he got from the American presidents. On the first day of competition, Hitler shook hands only with the German victors and then left the stadium. Olympic committee officials insisted Hitler greet every medalist or none at all. Hitler opted for the latter and skipped all further medal presentations. On reports that Hitler had deliberately avoided acknowledging his victories, and had refused to shake his hand, Owens said at the time:

“Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the ‘man of the hour’ in another country”.

Many Americans imagined that black athletes would be poorly treated in Berlin, but the 100,000 Berliners chanting “Jes-say O-vens” as he won the 100m proved the contrary. Owens and his black teammates enjoyed freedom of movement and equality seldom experienced stateside. The Nazis wanted to use the Olympics to display a renewed Germany to the world. International Olympic boycott movements had threatened the opportunity. Consequently, the Olympic village was integrated and all racist propaganda was suspended for the duration of the games. Robert Vann, an African-American newsman, wrote: “These German people are mighty fine. They have a spirit of sportsmanship and fair play which overrides the color-barrier”.

However, this rosy picture of Berlin in 1936 was not conducive to framing a struggle between opposed political ideologies. In truth the tolerant Berlin on which Vann reported was created specifically for the duration of the Olympics at the behest Goebbels and the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Anti-Semitic posters and publications were removed from the streets. Buildings were white-washed and painted. Public persecution of Jewish Berliners was forbidden.

During the Olympics, Owens was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels in Germany as whites, while at the time African-Americans in many parts of the United States had to stay in segregated hotels while traveling. Later Owens said:

“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. Hitler didn’t snub me – it was Roosevelt who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram”.

Many Americans imagined that black athletes would be poorly treated in Berlin, but the 100,000 Berliners chanted “Jes-say O-vens” as he won the 100m proved the contrary.
Many Americans imagined that black athletes would be poorly treated in Berlin, but the 100,000 Berliners chanting “Jes-say O-vens” as he won the 100m proved the contrary.

The four-time gold medalist was a national hero, but he was a black national hero. Upon Owens’ return from Europe, he and his family found it difficult to find a hotel in Manhattan. The Chicago Defender remarked: “America’s arms of welcome to Jesse Owens, world-famed track hero, Sunday night, were the arms of Jim Crow”. The Olympic champion was forced to use a service elevator to attend a banquet in his honor. Olympic success made Jesse Owens known, it could not make him free.

In spite of his fame on his return from Berlin, Owens struggled for money and began to participate in stunt races against dogs, motorcycles and even horses during halftime of soccer matches and between doubleheaders of Negro League baseball games. Owens would start 40 yards ahead of his equine competitors before sprinting for 100 yards, and he would often win by a nose. “People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse,” Owens said, “but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals”.

Interesting facts:

  • Jesse Owens and the German athlete on the right Luz Long became friends during the Olympics. Luz Long gave tips to Jesse Owens that maybe saved the competition for him, and congratulated and embraced him after the win with the utmost sportsmanship They remained in correspondence until Long was killed in Sicily when the Allies invaded the island. Owens said: “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 on the twenty-four karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment”.
  • Jesse Owens won those gold medals wearing shoes given to him by Adolf “Adi” Dassler, the founder of Adidas who was also a Nazi. German shoemaker Adolf “Adi” Dassler didn’t view the Berlin Games as a vehicle for Nazi propaganda but as a chance to launch his humble athletic shoe business. He successfully lobbied not only German athletes, but Owens as well, to wear his personally handcrafted leather track shoes with extra long spikes.
  • Born James Cleveland Owens, the track star was called “J.C.” by his family. On his first day at Bolton Elementary School after moving to Cleveland at age 9, the teacher misheard his Alabama drawl and thought he said his name was “Jesse” instead of “J.C.” Owens was too shy to correct his new teacher in front of his new classmates, and he was called “Jesse” for the rest of his life.
  • In 1984, a street outside Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, where Owens shot to fame, was rechristened Jesse-Owens-Allee, and the section of the Olympic Village in which the sprinter stayed during the 1936 Summer Olympics features displays about the American champion.
Join the discussion

14 comments
  • This is the first time I heard about the shoes and the letter of congratulation from Hitler. Although he was a pathetic monster where does that leave FDR? A Good article

  • My father was 12, and used to ride his bike to the Olympic Games. He was there on the day Jesse Owens won his medals, and has always said that the German people thought Jesse was an amazing athlete, and that he was wildly cheered and celebrated by the Germans in attendance. I hope the new biopic coming out this month will portray fairly and with intelligence what the truth was.

  • Dear team, I’m the daughter in law of Luz Long, the competitor and friend who is mentionend in your article. My husband Kai, his son, did write the biographie about his father and it is released in Mai 2015. We did find in our personal archive unpublished fotos of his family and in sports. On chapter 31 in our book there is the friendship about Luz and Jesse described. The title of our book, which is only available in German:Luz Long, a Sportlercarriere in the Third Reich”.
    this year, Olympia 1936 will turn the 80. time and therefore Luz is honored in a documentation by our Channel NDR/Germany with the title: Luz Long, a hero in the Nazi-Time. Jess will be honored by the cinemafilm Race, which celebrates this week in Columbus his premiere. The German Part of Luz is played by our German actor David Kross, as we are told. In case, you have got any questions, please let me know. Kind regards, Ragna Long

    • Did your father-in-law or his family suffer any negative consequences from the Nazi government for his actions?

    • hello I’m a student in riverside California and i was wondering if you can send me more information to my email about your father in law because we are currently doing a project about him. Thank you for your time.Hope to hear from you soon.

    • Thank you for sharing your wonderful story. Would love to see the documentary and get the book. Any suggestions on how I and other can see the documentary and purchase the book?

  • A very Inspiring, uplifting photo of courage.
    A question though…who is the athlete in front of Jesse who did not do the Nazi salute? He is also making a memorable statement to the world…

  • I also would like to know who the athletes were who stood next to Jesse Owens and didn’t salute? They had the courage to defy Hitler and his propaganda at the 1936 Olympic games despite the overwhelming majority of people being swept up by it.

  • The athlete who did not give the Nazi salute was Naoto Tajima, the Japanese bronze medallist. Only Germans were expected to raise their right arm.

  • This is a truly remarkable article, and provides interesting perspective on the struggles going on in our own country at the time.

  • Mr. Naoto Tajima, the man standing at attention with Mr. Long and Mr. Owens, was a Japanese Olympic athlete from Iwakuni, Japan. I do not know much about him but I do know he won the triple jump in 1936. I also know that he survived World War II and, I think, lived into the 1990s.

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