Why you should care
Because from Jack Johnson to Colin Kaepernick, American sports have always been a flash point for racism.
With the temperature dipping below 55 degrees and morning rain turning the track to mud, it wasn’t looking good for Jesse Owens and his 220-yard dash. The conditions were the same for everyone, but he was racing against the clock more than his fellow athletes, because he was widely expected to win. And win he did, clocking a blistering 20.7 seconds. Though it was his third gold medal win in as many days at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Owens was disappointed with his time: It was by far the fastest time ever around a bend, but the world record was on a straight track, and he was 0.1 seconds off that time.
Adolf Hitler famously refused to shake Owens’ hand, not wanting the humiliation of acknowledging a Black athlete’s brilliance, or so the story goes. But the truth is that, after the first day of competition, Hitler didn’t shake any athlete’s hand because the head of the International Olympic Committee told him he must congratulate all gold medalists or none at all. Sure, the führer wasn’t keen on photo ops with Black or Jewish athletes, but he simply chose to steer clear of the stadium altogether. So Owens was never personally snubbed by Hitler, but his story is still defined by systematic racism — not in Nazi Germany, but in the United States.
Hitler didn’t snub me; it was [FDR] who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.
After the Olympics, in which 18 African-American athletes competed with record-breaking success, only white athletes were invited to meet President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House. It was an election year, and FDR “did not want to be perceived as being soft on the negro issue,” says Harry Edwards, a sociologist and campaigner for Black participation in professional sports. The most decorated American athlete of the Games, Owens had to enter his own celebratory reception at the Waldorf Astoria through the freight elevator. After being banned from amateur competition because he declined to take part in a post-Olympics promotional tour, and with no professional opportunities or sponsorships, Owens worked as a playground janitor. He would later work as a gas station attendant before eventually filing for bankruptcy and being prosecuted for tax evasion. Owens began smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, a habit that would eventually kill him.
The Alabama native was among the first of many African-American athletes who fought for racial justice through sports and whose “performances were integral to the struggle to broaden the basis of Black participation in American society more generally,” says Edwards. Owens and others like boxers Jack Johnson and Joe Lewis battled for the fundamental appreciation of their legitimacy as athletes; to “put lie to notions of white athletic superiority,” says historian David Clay Large. But whites in both Germany and the U.S. “found ways to rationalize” the dominance of Owens and others “by saying that Blacks had certain anatomical advantages because they were closer to the jungle,” says Large. In the U.S., Owens’ coach, Larry Snyder, even credited his speed to his natural muscular advantages as a negro and because he always followed orders from his white coaches.
Despite the wins by Owens and other Black athletes in Berlin, the Games were a huge success for Hitler. The domestic propaganda machine “wasn’t so much about racial superiority. In fact, [Minister of Propaganda Joseph] Goebbels gave orders to the German press not to mention race at all,” says Large. For Hitler, the Games were about being on the world stage and silencing the growing international condemnation of the Nazi regime, which went “out of its way to suppress open displays of anti-Semitism during the Games.” Owens was even allowed to stay in the same hotels as whites in Germany — a freedom denied to him in the United States. As a result of how Owens was embraced by the German public, many tourists and commentators gave positive accounts on their return from Nazi Germany. Owens’ story, in fact, might actually have fit into Hitler’s narrative. A political conservative (he campaigned for Republican Alf Landon against FDR in 1936), Owens’ initial support for boycotting the Berlin Olympics turned to a level of admiration for Hitler — before the atrocities of the Nazi regime became clear. As such, it was “not a very clean handoff” from Owens to the next generation of Black athletes, says Kenneth Shropshire, a Wharton professor who studies sports and race. At the 1968 Olympics, Owens publicly condemned the “Black Power” podium salute of Tommy Smith and John Carlos, and his subsequent labeling as an “Uncle Tom” was “the last kind of label you’d want for a man who went through the things he went through,” says Shropshire.
Owens won four Olympic gold medals just months after perhaps the greatest athletic achievement of all time, when he set three world records and tied a fourth within 45 minutes in May 1935. He was a peerless athlete, but the challenges he faced were far from unique. In the words of Edwards and Shropshire, respectively, this hero was “just another negro” and sports “just another segregated institution.”