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Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics


Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics

Jesse Owens competes in the 200 meters during the 1936 Olympics.

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Prior to the 1936 Olympics, Jesse Owens had already set a variety of records in short sprints, sprint hurdles and the long jump. Indeed, his long jump record of 8.13 meters (26 feet, 8 inches), set in 1935, stood up until 1960. The only doubt about his Olympic participation was the possible boycott that the AAU and numerous American groups supported, in protest of Germany’s anti-Jewish policies.

Berlin had been selected to play host to the 1936 Games before Hitler’s election as German chancellor. Since that time, nazi policies had stripped German Jews of political and citizenship rights. Owens stated his willingness to join a U.S. boycott, but President Franklin Roosevelt and U.S. Olympic Committee leader Avery Brundidge defeated the boycott efforts.

The nazis, meanwhile, were pleased to try to use the Olympics for propaganda purposes. Owens later wrote that he was well aware of what his performance in the Games was about.

“In the early 1830s my ancestors were brought on a boat across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to America as slaves for men who felt they had a right to own other men. I boarded a boat back across the Atlantic Ocean to battle with Adolph Hitler.”

The Long Jump:

The next day, German athlete Carl “Luz” Long, Owens’ chief long jump competitor, did not snub Owens. Indeed, after Owens fouled twice in qualification, leaving him one jump from elimination, it was Long who advised Owens to jump 1 foot behind the takeoff board to assure that he qualified for the final. Owens took his advice, qualified, then won the final with a leap of 8.06 meters (26 feet, 5¼ inches). Long, the blonde-haired German who finished second, walked arm-in-arm around the track with the African-American Owens after the medal ceremony.

200 Meters and the 4 x 100 Relay:

By the fourth day, Owens was a crowd favorite, receiving loud cheers as he won the 200 meters in 20.7 seconds. Later in the Games he and Metcalfe were added to the U.S. 4 x 100-meter relay team, in place of the squad’s only two Jews, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller. Glickman was later told that they were removed from the race to appease the nazis. Owens at first protested, but athletes had no real power in the 1930s, so he and Metcalfe were pressured into running. The U.S. won the event in 39.8 seconds, earning Owens his fourth gold medal.

The 100 Meters:

On the second day of the games, Owens and fellow African-American Ralph Metcalfe ran 1-2 in the 100-meter final, with Owens winning in 10.3 seconds. Hitler, who attended the Games and publicly congratulated some German winners, did not appear on the track to shake Owens’ hand. Some have reported that Hitler had simply stopped congratulating the gold medalists, but it was widely reported at the time that the German leader had “snubbed” the black American. If he did, his move only shined a brighter spotlight on Owens and his achievements.

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