The Olympics bring out the best in both athletes and nations with few exceptions, throughout the recorded history of the games. Of the many ceremonies, events and athletic performances encompassing the Olympics in the modern era, the finest moment easily remains Jesse Owens and his four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Games in Nazi Germany.
Watch: Highlights From Jesse Owens Performance in Germany 1936
The Olympics and the Aryan Nation
Both the nation and citizenry hosting the rest of the participating world were far from hospitable to the diverse array of competitors on hand. Hostile Aryanism reigned supreme in Hitler’s land; with Blacks and other ethnic and cultural minorities only a few years away at that point from being forcibly persecuted and in many cases, exterminated within Germany’s borders.
In the midst of an overbearing, intimidating crowd, Jesse Owens singlehandedly accounted for four of the thirteen gold medals won by Black athletes in the 1936 Summer Games. His first place finishes in the 100-meter dash; 200-meter dash; 4×100 meter relay and the Long Jump shed questionable if not critical light on the Fuhrer’s claims to Aryan superiority across all athletic disciplines.
An Unlikely and Unshakeable Bond
This performance also cemented an unlikely admiration and friendship between Owens and German champion Carl Ludwig Luz Long, whom Owens beat in the Long Jump, and who was the first one out of the pit to congratulate Owens upon his victory. In front of 100,000 Aryan citizens, and Owens own American teammates who looked upon Blacks as less than human, Long sincerely and openly embraced his fellow athlete and human being.
Owens and Luz Long would remain friends until Luz Long was killed July of 1943, shortly after Allied forces invaded Sicily. In 1951, Jesse Owens fulfilled a promise to Luz Long, by returning to Germany and locating Luz Long’s son. Owens also recounted his most valuable Olympic memory as his friendship to Luz Long–over his (Owens’s) national affiliation, as well as astounding athletic achievements.
Jesse Owens: A First-Class Athlete Without a Country
This was because like the many other Black people in America during that era, Owens’s ethnicity and race was voraciously marginalized and persecuted by the dominant White cultural majority. Owens was treated as a second-class citizen at best–despite being a world class Olympian and the first athlete of any color to win four gold medals on the same day.
Owens, the grandson of a slave, returned home to an American nation where he still could not live as an equal, or hold employment in professional or public venues. To support his impoverished family, Jesse Owens ran competitively until 1948, and afterwards began advocating youth athletics programs for children of all ethnicities.
Jesse Owens: A Fist-Class Human Being On and Off the Field
Four years before his death in 1976, Owens was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Gerald R. Ford. Jesse Owens by that time was a free Black man, but still had to overcome segregation, racism, bigotry and hostility both nationally and worldwide–to get to an American society only slightly removed from its racial posturing and positioning existing during his athletic glory years’ past.
Owens died of complications from cancer on March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona. On that day, an Angel returned to heaven from whence it came, Jesse Owens being its physical embodiment on planet Earth.
Whether standing humbly yet defiantly in front of Hitler’s Germany, or an America not any more favorable or forgiving to those like him for most of his life; Jesse Owens proved Blacks belonged in the world of athletics, and equally in the world-at-large. Throughout his lifetime, Owens did so with all the grace, class and integrity of a true champion–both in the sporting world and beyond.