Up, Up, Up: Olympic Champion Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens didn’t so much run as float. And his performance in front of Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was nothing short of transcendent.

Up, Up, Up: Olympic Champion Jesse Owens

August 1, 1936 was an unseasonably drizzly and overcast day in Berlin, but nothing could dampen the ardour of the 110,000 people crammed into the city’s newly built, dauntingly brutalist Olympiastadion — with Hitler’s favoured architect, Albert Speer, ensuring that the shock and awe factor was jacked up to 11 — for the opening ceremony of what had been billed, not least by the Nazis, as the Nazi Olympics. Trumpet fanfares hailed Hitler’s arrival; the massive Hindenburg blimp loomed over the onlookers, trailing the Olympic flag; a white-clad Richard Strauss conducted a choir of 3,000 in the singing of Deutschland über Alles; and Leni Riefenstahl’s cameras were dotted around the stadium, ready to immortalise Aryan heroics. It promised to be a huge propaganda coup for nazism — the firing of the starting gun, if you will, on the nascent Thousand-Year Reich. 

And then Jesse Owens definitively rained on Hitler’s parade. The son of a share-cropper and the grandson of a slave, Owens was one of 10 black athletes in the United States’ Olympic track team, derided by the Nazis as “America’s black auxiliaries”. Owens won four gold medals over the following week, in the 100 metres, the 200m, the long jump, and as part of the 4x100m relay team, all producing Olympic records. His achievements were greeted with fervour in the stands and with fury in the V.I.P. box; Hitler left the stadium to avoid the danger of any photo ops with Owens. He later opined to Baldur von Schirach, the Hitler Youth leader, that “Americans should be ashamed at letting their medals be won by negroes”, and that he never would have shaken hands with one of them. By then, however, commentators were crediting Owens with “single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy”. Owens remained nonplussed by the furore. “I wanted no part of politics,” he later said. “I wasn’t running against Hitler. I was running against the world.” 

Jesse Owens at Waterloo station in August 1936. He was returning to the U.S. having won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics.
An illustration in 1930.
Arriving in New York aboard the Queen Mary in 1936.
Enjoying a morning run with some admirers during a visit to London.
Arriving in New York aboard the Queen Mary in 1936.
Waving to crowds in Manhattan during a ticker-tape parade honouring U.S. Olympic athletes.

Owens had a lot to outrun. He was born on September 12, 1913, in Danville, Alabama, the penultimate child of 11 (with three of his siblings dying in infancy). He picked cotton until he was nine, when the Owens family moved north, to Cleveland, Ohio, as part of the Great Migration. “I can remember many days of hunger, days when there was not enough clothing to cover our bodies, days of embarrassment,” he recalled. He hadn’t as much as a name to his name, going by his father’s initials until he was enrolled in school in Ohio: “I told the teacher I was J.C. Owens, and she said, ‘Jesse Owens?’ I said yes, and I was Jesse Owens from then on.” 

Young Owens picked up pocket money working in a shoe shine and repair shop, but his early ambition — to own such a shop himself — was quickly subsumed by his natural athletic ability. He ran his first race at 13, and quickly became a phenomenon at Cleveland’s High School, where he fell under the tutelage of its P.E. instructor, a tall, gaunt, Irish immigrant named Charles Riley. “He wasaboywhoyearnedforeverybitofinstructionIcouldgivehim,” Riley later remembered, “and he was always the last to quit practice in the evening.” 

The teenage Owens was slim and lithe at 163 pounds, with an aerodynamic flat-top, and he moved with a sinuous, liquid grace — appropriately enough, as Riley taught him to run as  though he were balancing a glass of water on his head. “He said we should think of the floor as a hot brick, so if you leave your feet there for too long you’ll get burnt. Everything had to be light, just a touch, and then up, up, up.” (Study any online footage of Owens and you’ll see that he took Riley’s advice to heart: despite the depredations of the era — athletes required to dig their own holes in the dirt or cinder starting line in the absence of blocks, for instance — he displays a compact, poised, natural-habitat ease on the track that would be echoed in later champions like Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt.) 

While still in high school, Owens equalled the world record for the 100-yard dash at the National Interscholastic Meet in Chicago in 1933. He was then courted by 28 American universities, settling on Ohio State. However, in the absence of an athletic scholarship, he paid his way while working as a night elevator operator at $100 a month. He was quickly christened the ‘Buckeye Bullet’ as he systematically smashed records for the Ohio State Buckeyes track team. 

It was as a sophomore, though, in his first Big Ten championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 25, 1935, that he achieved athletic immortality. The omens were less than promising: a week before the meet, Owens and a fraternity brother plunged down a flight of stairs during a bout of roistering, leaving him with a tailbone so blitzed that he couldn’t bend over to touch his knees. Owens’ coach, Larry Snyder, offered him the opportunity to withdraw, but the trainer’s equivalent of the magic sponge — a red pepper rub — got him to the starting line. Over the next 45 minutes, Owens equalled the world record for the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds); broke the world record for the long jump at his only attempt (8.13 metres, a record that would stand for the next quarter of a century); broke the world record for the 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds); and broke the world record for the 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds). “He is a floating wonder, just like he had wings,” marvelled Kenneth L. ‘Tug’ Wilson, the Big Ten commissioner. Owens was characteristically unassuming about his central role in what became known as athletics’ greatest day. “It’s just one of the mysteries of life,” he said. “I can’t explain it. My coach couldn’t explain it. That morning I couldn’t get off the davenport in the hotel lobby.” 

Owens leaves his competitors trailing in the 100-yard race at the Quadrangular Meet in Evanston, Illinois, in 1935.
On the podium with one of his four gold medals in Berlin, 1936.
Winning Olympic gold in the long jump in 1936.
Team USA go for a walk in Kensington Gardens.
Signing autographs on top of a bus in Berlin.
President Richard Nixon and Owens in Chicago, where Nixon was meeting GOP congressional candidates. Owens was running for county commissioner at the time.

Owens’ star wattage was thus already high when the U.S. Olympics team arrived in Germany for the Berlin Olympics aboard the SS Manhattan (there’s an indelible image of his leaping over an improvised hurdle on deck while dressed in what looks like a zoot suit). Fans at the Olympiastadion could be heard chanting, “Wo ist Jesse?” while, shortly before competition began, a German shoemaker named Adolf ‘Adi’ Dassler lobbied many athletes, including Owens, to wear his handcrafted leather Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes with extra long spikes; Owens’ triumphs would be the spur for Dassler to launch his own company a little more than a decade later — Adidas. 

Any contemporary athlete who could boast even a fraction of Owens’ signature achievements — the smashed records, the charismatic presence, the way he rebuked a tinpot ideology just by being himself — would have garnered sponsorship deals, shoe lines and celebrity cachet to spare. But this was a different era. When he returned to the U.S., he was refused entry at the main doors of New York’s Waldorf Astoria and had to be conveyed to the reception honouring him in the hotel’s ballroom via the freight elevator. President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to invite him to the White House. “He didn’t even send me a telegram,” Owens said. “I came back to my native country and I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus.”

Perhaps more crushingly, he could no longer practise his vocation. When Owens skipped a post-Olympics meet in Sweden, athletics officials were furious and withdrew his amateur status, which immediately ended his career. He took on a slew of menial jobs — gas station attendant, school janitor, dry cleaner — and accepted money to race against cars, trucks, motorcycles, dogs and horses (the trick with beating the latter, he revealed, was to pick a skittish thoroughbred that would be spooked by the starter’s shotgun and give Owens a head start). “Sure, it bothered me,” he recalled of this carnivalesque period. “But at least it was an honest living. You can’t eat four gold medals.” (There were other mouths to feed: Owens had married his high school sweetheart, Minnie Solomon, in 1935, and they had three daughters, Gloria, Marlene and Beverly.) 

Arriving in style at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.
Owens outside Madison Square Garden in New York.
At home in Phoenix, Arizona, surrounded by his trophies and medals, circa March 1980.
Owens practices on board the S.S. Manhattan on his way to the Berlin Olympics in July 1936.

Photo Credits: Getty Images