August 9, 2010

Jesse Owens won his fourth gold medal – 1936

On this day in 1936, American Jesse Owens won a gold medal in 400-meter relay in the Olympic Games. This fourth gold joined three gold medals for individual performances in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, and long jump.

These Olympics were being held in Hitler's Germany, shortly before World War II, and many people think that Owens and other black athletes embarrassed Hitler by proving wrong his idea about the “Aryan” or “white race” being superior to all others. Hitler certainly hoped that Germany would dominate the medals.

The first day of the competition, Hitler only acknowledged German winners, shaking their hands and then leaving the stadium. The Olympics committee officials insisted that he had to greet every medalist—or none at all. Hitler chose the latter, and the skipped all medal presentations so he wouldn't have to shake hands with or otherwise acknowledge medalists like Owens. Privately, Hitler was reported to have shrugged off Owens' successes since (Hitler said) Owens and other black people “came from the jungle” and were “primitive” but stronger than “civilized whites.” Hitler went on to say that blacks should be banned from the Olympics.

But Owens recalled Hitler waving to him and felt that Hitler hadn't snubbed him. Certainly the German people didn't snub him—Owens was greeted by enthusiastic and cheering crowds, asked for his autograph, and put up in the same hotels as the white athletes. When he came home to the U.S., Owens reported, F.D.R. snubbed him – not even sending him a telegram of congratulations – and he was often kept segregated from whites. For example, he was made to ride a freight elevator when being taken to a reception in his honor!

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