From Usain Bolt’s record-breaking sprint double in Beijing, to the captivating wonder of Torvill and Dean’s “Bolero,” the Olympics has presented us with more than its fair share of memories and magic, but one special incident towers above the rest.
It’s not the drive, determination and heart shown by the Jamaican Bobsled team in Calgary, or Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards glorious failures of the same year. It’s not Greg Louganis’s famous “bounce back” in Seoul or Derek Redmond’s agonizing but inspiring hobble over the line in Barcelona.
It’s the moment when an African-American athlete and grandson of a slave used both performance and passion to prove to Adolph Hitler and his gang of racist gimps, that the so called “Aryan superiority” the Fuhrer had built his twisted philosophy upon was a farcical illusion and about as solid as a castle made of sand.
The year was 1936, the Olympic venue was Berlin and the athlete in question was Jesse Owens.
The Man Who Slam-dunked The Fuhrer
Born into poverty in Ohio, Jesse was the youngest of ten children, the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave. A keen and gifted athlete, Jesse overcame racial discrimination to attend Ohio State University where he was affectionally known as the “Buckeye Bullet.”
His talents later secured him a place in the U.S. Olympic team which traveled to the German capital to compete in the 1936 Olympics. Nazism was in the ascendant in pre-World War II Eastern Europe and Hitler regarded the Games as a golden opportunity to prove to the world the “genetic superiority” of the Aryan race.
Jesse Called A Non-Human
As a 22-year-old athlete, Jesse had little interest in politics. He just wanted to represent his country and give it his best shot. Hitler on the other hand, viewed African-Americans as inferior and even went as far to criticize America for allowing these “non-humans” on their teams.
Hitler also famously refused to shake Jesse’s hands prior to the beginning of the games, confident that the Germans would dominate proceedings and Jesse would become nothing more than an embarrassing memory who almost threatened to “taint” the purity of the Berlin Olympics.
Jesse Upsets The Apple Cart
In a hostile arena decked in red and black swastikas, Jesse bagged not one, not two, not three, but a defiantly glorious haul of four gold medals before the Olympics drew to a close. Jesse struck gold in the 100 meters, the long jump, the 200 meter dash, where he broke the Olympic record, and finally as a member of the 4×100 relay team.
Owens later revealed the secret formula behind his success was, “I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible. From the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up.”
In true Olympic spirit, Luz Long, a 19-year-old German athlete was the first to congratulate Jesse on his achievements, and Owens was later to recall, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler… You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the twenty-four carat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”
Albert Speer wrote that Hitler “was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.”
Flying in the face of the evidence, as was their habit, German officials continued to denounce Jesse and tried to play down his achievements but the world and a large part of the German public hailed him as a true hero of “Olympian standards,” who had looked both adversity and expectations to fail square on and trampled them into the ground beneath his feet.
[Featured Image by Keystone/Getty Images]