When Jesse Owens ran, nothing else mattered. Fluid, languid and loose, everything around him was a breeze as his body faced the runway like a catapult. Even as cold, drizzly rain fell, Owens moved his limbs in sweeping, lyrical motion defying time.
It was the summer of 1936 in Berlin. Red, white and black Nazi swastika flags flew out of every shop window. Through the Olympic Games, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler had put in his best possible effort to put on the greatest show on earth and showcase his warped political utopia in which any athlete, or any human being for that matter, of non-Aryan descent had very little space.
But it was the summer when Jesse Owens ran — against his opponents, against time and against the Nazi grand narrative — too light-footed to touch solid ground. And when he broke the tape in 10.3 seconds in the 100-metre finals, tying his own Olympic record, his customary bow to Hitler from the victory stand was only acknowledged with a stiff salute. When an aide asked the German Chancellor to invite Owens over to his viewing box, multiple accounts state that Hitler had savagely replied, “Do you really think that I will allow myself to be photographed shaking hands with a Negro?”
But Owens could not care less. All through the summer, he was a breeze, jumping, catapulting, twisting, turning and running into glory, scripting history with four gold medals. This was supposed to be Hitler’s moment in the sun — the summer when the Führer through the grandest of spectacles on the biggest of stages had hoped to acquire more political capital for his project of Aryan supremacy. But it was the summer when Jesse Owens ran.
When initial talks were held regarding Germany hosting the Olympics in 1936, Hitler had no interest in the matter. He even went on to dismiss the Games as an “invention of Jews and Freemasons” and called it a form of idealistic theatre “which cannot possibly be put on in a Reich ruled by National Socialists”.
It was, however, his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, who convinced him that the Olympics can be a great platform for projecting the Nazi ideology, writes Christopher Hilton in Hitler’s Olympics: The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Goebbels was always keen to explore newer avenues to disseminate propaganda and he felt that the possibilities of doing this through the Olympics were truly limitless. Along with Hitler, he started working to make the stage the greatest advertisement for their Aryan supremacist ideology and German nationalism.
Goebbels once said in 1933 that the only task of sports in the country was “to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence”. Now, he set the wheels into motion to execute his plans with an eye on the Berlin Olympics.
Away from the field of sport, trade unions were being banned, Communist property being seized and books considered to be “unGerman” were being burnt. Nazi eugenics, with its firm belief in the superiority of Aryans, was a rage, with Jews being stripped of their rights and bundled off to concentration camps. All marriages between Aryans and Jews had been banned and a Race Council set up to stop mixed marriages. The Nazis’ secret state police, the Gestapo, was holding prisoners and torturing them at Columbia-Haus.
In January 1934, Goebbels set up a body to look after all the publicity during the Berlin Games — while the organising committee would handle all the Olympics news, there were subcommittees to deal with the press, radio, film and art. During another meeting, plans of epic proportions were made to decorate Berlin for the event, with artists being enlisted to design posters and medals. It was during this meeting that the idea of holding a torch relay from Greece to Berlin was first mooted.
The Aryan supremacist ideology had invaded the field of sports in Germany by then, as described by Anton Rippon in Hitler’s Olympics: The Story of the 1936 Nazi Games.
On February 26, 1933, Erich Seelig, who was then the 22-year-old middleweight and light-heavyweight champion of Germany, and also a Jew, was warned on the eve of his scheduled defence of his middleweight title in Berlin that he would be killed if he entered the ring. He was ultimately stripped of his German titles by the Nazis, after which he fled to France and then to the US. He would go on to fight for both the European and world middleweight championships and was eventually elected to the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame.
Sadder still is the story of another German boxing champion, Johann ‘Rukelie’ Trollman, a member of the Sinti gypsy tribe, who had won a bout against Kiel boxer Adolf Witt in 1933 but the decision was reversed one week later on the ground of “poor behaviour” and “bad boxing”. When he was pitted against the German welterweight champion Gustav Eder the following month, Trollman was ordered to abandon his usual boxing style or risk losing his license. He suffered a heavy defeat and lost his path in life — he was later arrested by the Gestapo and died in a concentration camp.
On April 25, 1933, the Reich Sports Office implemented an ‘Aryans-only’ policy in all German sports organisations and the following month the German Gymnastic Society decreed that Aryan ancestry was absolutely mandatory for membership of the Turnvereine (gymnastic associations). Soon, the All-German Chess Convention excluded Jews from its membership and non-Aryans were prohibited from being jockeys, amateur or professional.
However, with the Berlin Games not far off, these decisions had international ramifications. What was happening in Germany caught the attention of the International Olympics Committee (IOC), and the American delegation told the IOC in a meeting that the Games should not be held in Berlin if the position of the Nazis remained unchanged.
Speculation that the Games will not be held in Berlin began to gain momentum, with the New York Times in April 1933 running the headline ‘1936 Olympic Games May Be Cancelled’. By 1935, the IOC had an agreement that made it compulsory to allow Jewish athletes to compete in the Berlin Games. However, Hitler said that the rule should apply only for visiting teams; otherwise, he would stage its own version of ‘German Olympics’. Amid the widespread speculation that the Berlin Olympics would be cancelled or at least boycotted by many, several countries started planning their own ‘counter Olympics’ in protest. For instance, an Olimpiada Popular (People’s Olympic Games) was planned for Barcelona, with the idea being supported by the leftwing coalition, the Popular Front.
There were lingering hopes that the Nazis may make amends ahead of the Berlin Games but it was not to be. Among the hundreds of stories of discrimination in Germany leading up to the Olympics was that of Gretel Bergmann, a Jewish track and field athlete who was a likely gold medal prospect in the high jump category.
As Bergmann would write later recounting the moment she opened the letter informing her of the decision not to include her in the German team, “I opened it and I cursed my head off. I used every word I had ever learnt and that was a lot because I was the only girl in my class…I was absolutely stunned.”
Shortly after coming to power, Hitler said, “If Germany is to stand host to the entire world, her preparations must be complete and magnificent.” And now, to present his country and his supremacist ideology to the world, he wanted to play host to the grandest of spectacles.
The German Chancellor deployed 2,600 men to build a stadium out of stone that could accommodate 1,00,000 spectators — a project that cost 42 million Reichsmarks. An Olympic village with a swimming stadium, a hockey arena and dormitories for the athletes was also built.
The Games were heavily promoted, with the Zeppelin Hindenburg, the world’s largest airship, towing an Olympic flag across the Berlin sky. Thousands of people rehearsed for months with marching bands to take part in the opening ceremonies. And more than 3,000 runners were asked to carry the Olympic torch from Athens to Berlin. The stage was set for his fantasy to play out — all German teams had been nearly purged of non-Aryan athletes, and all Jewish or non-Aryan athletes in opposition teams had to be beaten to vindicate his ideology of racial superiority.
German journalists were ordered to use the Olympics to further Hitler’s propaganda and warned not to publish anything before receiving the official press report on events. The Ministry of Propaganda also expressly warned journalists that reports about Rassenschande (sex between Aryans and Jews) should be reduced to a minimum.
Before the Games got underway, loudspeakers blared announcing Hitler’s grand entry into the stadium. The French and the Austrian teams were given a standing ovation for extending their arms in a Nazi salute. There was considerable confusion later when the French claimed that they had intended to give the Olympic salute but the Germans did not know the difference.
Throughout the Games, the persona of Hitler dominated proceedings — he was present for as many events as possible, and his arrival was always marked by the raising of his standard at one end and the Olympic flag at the other. As Australian high-jumper Doris Carter would later say, it was very apparent even by looking at the Berlin Games that Hitler was preparing for war.
Hilton wrote in Hitler’s Olympics that the 13th day of the Games was marked by a military parade at the Olympic Stadium. “Four searchlights played over the swastika at the east end, the Olympic flame over the Marathon Gate, the Olympic and Führer’s standards at Hitler’s box. The march-past came in a great, molten, controlled ripple from the tunnel beneath the Marathon Gate, soldiers goose-stepping and holding torches…The soldiers marched past Hitler to ecstatic applause. To use the Olympic Stadium during an Olympic Games for a military parade was an act which made all its own statements.”
A well-known anecdote from the Berlin Games is when Dhyan Chand met Hitler after India defeated Germany 8-1 in the final of the men’s field hockey, the German Chancellor told him: “If you were a German, I would have at least made you a major general.”
At the end of the day, German athletes did triumph at the Berlin Olympics, winning 89 medals (more than any other country), out of which 33 were gold.
But if the Berlin Games with all its pomp and politics — this was the first Olympics to be televised, with CCTVs broadcasting events onto 28 large screens placed around the streets of Berlin — is remembered as Hitler’s project to exhibit his supremacist ideology, it is also recalled to this day as the summer when Jessie Owens defied the narrative and emerged as an unlikely hero.
Perhaps the reason why Owens could upstage Hitler’s project at an event which was meant to be a triumphant display of German prowess was simpler than one could imagine — the African American student of Ohio State University had come to the Olympics to run and nothing else mattered to him.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Secretary, Walter Francis White, had tried to write to Owens dissuading him from taking part in the Berlin Games as it would “promote a racist regime”, but he never sent the letter.
But going into the Olympics, some Americans did have high hopes on Owens. Just a year ago, at the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 25, 1935, Owens had set four new world records in the space of 45 minutes.
The Alabama boy had till then seen harrowing poverty — he wrote in his biography that since their family lacked the funds to pay for their medical expenses, his mother performed makeshift surgery on him at home, carving the boils out of his flesh with a red-hot kitchen knife. Owens, who had fought against all odds, was determined to make his mark in the Berlin Games.
From August 3 to 5 in 1936, Owens won gold in three events. He won the 100-metre dash with a time of 10.3 seconds, was the champion in the long jump with a leap of 8.06 metres and won the 200-metre sprint with a time of 20.7 seconds.
Ralph Metcalfe, who had won two Olympic medals in Los Angeles, finished second in the 100-metre dash while in the long jump Owens edged out Germany’s Lutz Long.
By then, the legend of Owens was growing. Even in the hostile atmosphere marked by Hitler’s grandstanding, his popularity among the German crowd in Berlin was unmistakable. As Tony Gentry in Jesse Owens: A Champion Athlete writes, a British observer among the audience who was blown away by Owens remarked, “No sprinter I have ever seen has run in such effortless style. He was in a class above all other competitors; his arms and legs worked in perfect rhythm, and he carried his running right through the tape.”
Later, Owens was inducted into the US 400-metre relay race team, replacing sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller. The decision was not without controversy but it paved the way for a fourth gold medal for Owens at the Berlin Games — an unprecedented feat by a track athlete.
Many in the German crowd had been a convert by then and among those who could not hide their admiration for Owens was Hitler’s handpicked cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl. As Gentry writes in his book on Owens: “She [Riefenstahl] filmed the entire 1936 Olympic Games in a sweeping, lyrical style that highlighted the beauty of each event while downplaying all the hoopla over winners and losers. Jesse Owens was her athletic ideal. In her filming of the 100-meter competition, her cameraman zoomed in on Owens’s thigh, neglecting all the other runners to show his perfectly toned muscles in action. Similarly, her portrayal of the Owens–Long duel in the long jump centres on the soaring grace of their leaps, not on their battle for the gold. Riefenstahl’s film, Olympiad, is sometimes shown on television, especially during Olympic years, and it is easy for a viewer to be drawn into her awe at the magnificence of athletic achievement and particularly at the seemingly effortless beauty of Jesse Owens in full flight.”
Many later questioned the narrative that Hitler had snubbed Owens — subsequent reports have claimed that they did in fact shake hands after the 100-metre finals. Owens himself said at a Republican rally in Baltimore later, “Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me.”
However, what cannot be doubted is by then Owens had scripted his own destiny and shot into unforeseen limelight and fame. Owens would say that he realised he “had jumped into another rare kind of stratosphere — one that only a handful of people in every generation are lucky enough to know”.
The success of Owens proved to be a great moment of schadenfreude for all who had criticised and questioned Hitler’s supremacist ideology. And it was of particular annoyance to Hitler himself. As Emma Anspach, et. al write in their essay titled ‘Hitler, Nazi Philosophy and Sport’, Nazi minister Albert Speer later mentioned that Hitler “was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvellous coloured American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games”.
Owens, whose success ushered in a fleet of swift African American sprinters over the ages, had famously said that he did well in Berlin because, “I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible”.
That Hitler’s ideology had cast its long and impenetrable shadow over the Berlin Olympics in 1936 was an unmistakable fact. But it was also the summer when Jessie Owens ran.
Anton Rippon, Hitler’s Olympics: The Story of the 1936 Nazi Games (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military, 2006)
Christopher Hilton, Hitler’s Olympics: The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2006)
Tony Gentry, Jesse Owens: Champion Athlete (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005)