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, both used William J. Baker's 1988 Jesse Owens: an American Life; for the stats)