In 1933, shortly after assuming power as chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler moved forward with plans to turn the 1936 Summer and Winter Olympics into showcases for his regime. He ordered the construction of a massive new stadium in Berlin and channeled funds toward the completion of an airport to welcome international visitors. Additionally, the Summer Games were meant to be the first to reach audiences around the world via television, as well as the first to feature the now-traditional element of the Olympic torch relay.
Of course, while the Olympics are ostensibly designed to bring a multitude of races and cultures together in a spectacle of competition, the Fuhrer had little use for such notions of unification. In fact, he deliberately hurt his country's chances for success by keeping Jews out of athletic clubs and events, eliminating potential Olympic medalists like high-jumper Gretel Bergmann.
Hitler saw African-American track stars as a threat
Meanwhile, Jesse Owens had emerged as a track and field sensation in the States. He tied the world record in the 100-yard dash while still in high school, and his performance at the 1935 Big Ten Championships, in which he established three world records and matched a fourth over a span of 45 minutes, remains one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in collegiate sports history.
He wasn't the only African-American athlete making waves. Ralph Metcalfe was a silver medalist at the 1932 Olympics and at one point shared the world record in the 100-meter dash. And a Temple University sprinter named Eulace Peacock emerged as a highly formidable opponent to Owens, even beating him multiple times in head-to-head competition in 1935, before suffering a hamstring injury that squashed his 1936 Olympic hopes.
The United States almost boycotted the 1936 Olympics
Owens nearly didn't get the chance to make Olympic history. With American decision-makers aware of Hitler's discriminatory policies against Jews – but not yet aware of the scope of the horrors to come – a fierce debate raged about whether to boycott the '36 Games. Amateur Athletic Union president Jeremiah Mahoney argued that participation amounted to support of the Third Reich, but he was outdone by American Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage, who insisted that the Games were for the athletes and not the politicians.
Like other elite black athletes who grew up in an unequal society, Owens considered the moral stance against Germany to be hypocritical and wasn't inclined to surrender the chance to shine on a global stage. He eventually expressed his desire to compete in the Games, a position that drew the condemnation of African-American publications and NAACP head Walter White.
Owens went on to become the first American to win four gold medals in track and field
From almost the get-go, Owens seized the reins as the star of the 1936 Summer Olympics. He coasted to a gold medal in his first event, the 100-meter dash, and followed with a highly publicized victory over German champion Luz Long in the long jump (an event embellished by the tall tale of Long offering advice to help his opponent win).
After setting an Olympic record in the 200-meter dash en route to a third gold medal, Owens put the exclamation point on his showing by running the opening leg of a record-shattering U.S. 4x100 relay performance. He became the first American of any race to win four gold medals in track and field in a single Olympics, an achievement that stood unaccompanied until Carl Lewis matched him in 1984.
Although it was largely reported that Hitler "snubbed" Owens for upstaging his prized Aryan athletes, in reality, he responded to a request to treat the winners equally and declined to publicly congratulate anyone after the first day of competition. Other reports indicated that the Fuhrer did salute Owens from afar, possibly influenced by the adoring reception the athlete received from fans.
Despite Hitler's snub, Owens left a global legacy
As with the so-called Hitler snub, the narrative of the 1936 Olympics has been softened and simplified over the years. Despite the accomplishments of Owens and his teammates, Germany could still claim athletic superiority by winning the most medals. More crucially, the Games succeeded as a form of propaganda, spotlighting the Nazi regime as welcoming and orderly even as it was on the precipice of launching another war and exterminating millions of Jews.
On a personal level, the spotlight of the Olympics was an outlier in the career of Owens, who returned to the cold reality of being a black man in Depression-era America. His commercial opportunities failing to materialize, he was forced to race against horses and take on other demeaning jobs for years, until finally catching a break as a government ambassador in the 1950s.
Still, the story of his triumphant showing in those Games endures. While he didn't halt the machinations of the Nazi Party, Owens undoubtedly stole the spotlight from the host country's zealous leader. Furthermore, he showed that black man could thrive with the eyes of the world upon him, an effort that paved the way for future African-American sporting stars like baseball's Jackie Robinson, and pushed the door open a little wider for the Civil Rights Movement to eventually emerge.