On August 3, 1936, Jesse Owens, a 23-year old from northern Alabama, captured the Gold Medal in the 1936 Olympics, winning the 100-meter dash. Owens, who had set the 100-meter world record (10.2 seconds) earlier in June, beat fellow American and former world-record holder (10.3 seconds) Ralph Metcalfe.
Many of you probably know the significance of Owens’ victory, but it bears repeating anyway. The 1936 Olympics took place in Berlin, Germany. A resurrected Germany, risen from the economic graveyard of the 1920’s and early 1930’s to prosperity and pride. A Germany flying the Nazi flag, having cast off (by electoral choice and dictatorial fiat) the weakness of Weimar leadership. A Germany with the Nazi Party’s wildly popular Adolf Hitler securely ensconced as its leader.
Jesse Owens’ victory was a direct slap in the proverbial face of National Socialism’s intensely racist ideology, which viewed the Aryan ideals of white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes as superior and saw Owens, an African-American, as ethnically inferior. The 1936 Olympics was supposed to be a showcase of German dominance in athletic competition, a venue through which Aryan ascendence could be witnessed worldwide.
Instead, the subject of the Berlin Olympiad’s story was what Nazism considered a 2nd class human. And the story didn’t end for Owens with 100-meter gold. On subsequent days, he stood on the golden step for the 200-meter dash, the long jump, and the 4×100-meter relay. Ralph Metcalfe, Owens’ relay teammate and the 100-meter Silver medalist, was also African-American, which provided emphasis to the fallacy of racial superiority.
Ironically, ordinary Germans loved the Owens story. They cheered Jesse loudly, they greeted him warmly on the streets, they eagerly asked for his autograph. While the ideology of the country may have been racist, the German everyman didn’t display it. He stayed in “white” hotels and used “white” transportation. More ironic may have have been the “superiority complex” that Owens saw when he returned to the U.S. an Olympic hero, weighed down with Gold. The U.S. that flew the flag of freedom. The U.S. that had abolished slavery 80 years before. The U.S. that still kept Blacks separate in hotels, schools, and buses.
Jesse Owens saw two remarkable contrasts. Germany: a country with a racist government, but one that still offered a measure of equality. The United States: a country whose government believed “all men are created equal”, but one that was largely segregated.
Happy Birthday, Dad!!