The year: 1936. The place: Munich, Germany. The event: The Olympic Games. Adolf Hitler, führer of Germany, broadcasts the opening of the games on television as a mark of German superiority. These games are to provide the world with convincing evidence of Aryan supremacy.

The thorn in Hitler's side? James Cleveland Owens, a black track-and-field athlete from Alabama. Owens dominates the Olympics, winning four gold medals and breaking or tying four world records... all in one day... ruining Hitler's grand plan...

One of the greatest athletes of all time, Jesse Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama on September 12, 1913. His family moved to Ohio in search of prosperity when he was eight, and Jesse enrolled in public school. At Cleveland East Technical School, Jesse became a star. As a high school senior he tied the world record for the 100-yard dash, running it in just 9.4 seconds.

A highly recruited athlete, Owens attended Ohio State, where he broke three world records and tied a fourth in a span of forty-five minutes on May 25, 1935... with a bad back. The next year Owens ran in the Olympics, making history by winning four medals in a day.

After the Olympics, Owens ran professionally and became a public speaker in order to provide for his family. In 1976, Jesse Owens was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be awarded to a civilian of the United States.

Four years later, on March 31, the American legend died from complications due to cancer, at the age of 66. He is survived by his widow, Ruth, and his daughter, Marlene.

Jesse Owens and Adolf Hitler

As the story goes, African-American athlete Jesse Owens was officially snubbed by Adolf Hitler in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Most versions have him storming out when his German athletes were beaten—not only beaten, but beaten by a "Negro." That isn't quite true.

The reason he wasn't congratulated by Der Führer was that no one was congratulated by Hitler after the first day of the games (Owens won his first medal the following day). On that first day Hitler did congratulate athletes—but only German athletes. The Olympic committee informed him that since Germany was hosting the games he had to be impartial in his congratulating the victors. Faced with an all or none proposition, Hitler chose none.

If any African-American athletes were "snubbed" it would be Cornelius Johnson, who won the gold in the high jump that first day. Just as the American National Anthem began to be played, Hitler and his entourage got up and left the stadium (the official story was that they always arrived and left at set times).

So where does the story originate? Well, after the first day, the New York Times headline was "Hitler greets all medalists except Americans" and followed it the next day with "Hitler ignores Negro medalists." Interestingly, the paper had been at the head of the movement for the United States to boycott the Olympics that year. Though the Times stopped the misleading headlines, other newspapers picked up the "story." With every medal Owens won, Hitler's "insult" grew and public outrage increased.

At first, Owens denied the story but eventually gave in went along with it.

Far from being taunted by the German crowds, the audience for the games seemed not to care about the color of his skin, instead appreciating his athletic ability. He had even been told by his coach to not "let anything you hear in the stands upset you. Ignore the insults and you'll be all right." But Owens had no cause to worry as the crowds cheered his accomplishments and even gave him standing ovations. Owens later recalled them as the best ovations of his career.

Another part of the "story" is that this all showed the Germans to be far less übermensch than they thought. While success by non-" aryans" may have weakened the position, Germany was hardly humiliated at the games. They not only won more medals than any other country (181, the United States was second with 124 and the third place Italy only won 47), they won more in each category of gold, silver, and bronze. Hitler was reportedly pleased with Germany's achievement.

(Sources: Richard Shenkman's 1988 Legends, Lies, & Cherished Myths of American History, www.urbanmyths.com/celeb_owens.html: both used William J. Baker's 1988 Jesse Owens: an American Life; www.darmoni.net/1936.HTM for the stats)

To pick up on Sid's train of thought that the whole Owens story isn't told, it's interesting to note Owens' fourth gold is actually shrouded in some controversy. Gold four came when he helped the United States' 4x100 relay team win. Two Jews, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, were supposed to run but were replaced at the last minute by Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. Some believe the change was made at Hitler's behest.

The head of the US Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, was an admitted admirer of Hitler's new order and a member of an anti-immigration organization called America First. America First, at the time, attracted a great deal of Nazi sympathizers. It is alleged Hitler asked Brundage not to embarrass him further by having two Jews win. It is also conjectured Brundage's cutting Glickman and Stoller was a way of punishing those who supported calls for America to boycott Hitler's games. Some of the biggest supporters of the boycott were, not surprisingly, Jews in America.

Owens himself was upset at the last minute change and protested that Glickman and Stoller should run. Glickman held no ill will for Owens. They formed a close and lasting friendship. Glickman returned to Berlin in 1985 for a ceremony in honor of Owens' achievement.

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