August 3rd, 1936, Berlin, Germany.
Jesse Owens won the first of his four Olympic gold medals in Berlin by winning the 100 metre dash in a time of 10.3 seconds.
History remembers the Berlin Olympics as the games where Hitler wanted to see his German Aryan athletes show their physical superiority to the world and where Hitler snubbed black and Jewish athletes.
It is though, an Olympics where propaganda on both sides played a part.
Germany initially asked the International community not to select any black or Jewish competitors for the games. Following International fury and threatened boycotts, the Nazi government relented. As a token, they selected a female athlete with a Jewish father to represent Germany and Helene Mayer fenced under the swastika flag at the games winning a silver medal. She gave the Nazi salute at the medal ceremony leading some to believe she was a traitor, while others believe she was protecting her family by not protesting.
She never clarified her position publicly, and she died from breast cancer in 1953 aged just 42.
'Jews not welcome' signs were removed from public buildings during the Berlin games to improve the image of the regime in front of the worldwide audience, and the nine months preceding and including the games was a fairly peaceful time. The press did though print opinion pieces supporting the view that black athletes shouldn't be allowed to compete.
The games also saw the first live television broadcast of an Olympics, and 25 public television sets were placed around Berlin so the public could watch the games live, if not in person. The first sports bars really. This was all designed to present a personable, reasonable and successful image to the world.
On the first day of the games, Hitler shook hands only with German medalists. The Olympic Committee told him this was inappropriate and that he should shake the hands of all medalists or none at all. Hitler chose the latter and did not formally meet any medalists throughout the rest of the games.
Many reports of the games describe Hitler snubbing Jesse Owens. Jesse Owens though disputes this. He talks of a wave between the two as Owens was passing the VIP seats, and is quoted as saying:
"Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticise the 'man of the hour' in another country."
There are also reports of him carrying a photograph in his wallet of the two shaking hands later in the games. In 2014, Eric Brown, the most decorated aircraft pilot in the Royal Navy asserted in a BBC documentary that he had witnessed Hitler shaking hands with and congratulating Owens on his achievement.
These reports were not shared in the US, as the 'snub' story was more in keeping with the persona of Hitler. You can see Jesse Owens winning in Berlin here.
Having won 4 gold medals (100m, 200m, 4 x 100m relay and long jump) Owens returned home to the US with the 17 other African American athletes carrying14 medals between them. He received a ticker-tape parade in New York which culminated in an event at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Owens wasn't permitted to use the front entrance, and had to access the event via the freight lift.
President Roosevelt didn't send a telegram or invite him to the White House to congratulate him. Jesse Owens achieved an Olympic record that wan't to be repeated until 1984 in Los Angeles, when Carl Lewis won the same events and invitations to meet the President personally after the 1936 games were only received by white athletes. Owens is quoted as saying:
"Hitler didn't snub me — it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram."
As always, these brief articles are designed to simply scratch the surface. I haven't mentioned his HR role at the Ford Motor Company or his commercial endorsement by Adi Dassler (as in Adidass) in 1936, the first such commercial deal for an African American, so, if you're interested in learning more about Jesse Owens, can I suggest this film, or this book.
As always, thanks for reading!