May 10, 2021

May 10: Jesse Owens Defeats Hitler And Races A Horse

Owens atop the Podium at 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
mage by the German Federal Archive
(Deutsches Bundesarchiv) 
On this day in 1935 black American athlete Jesse Owens executes "the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport"by setting three world records and tying for a fourth in less than an hour at the Big Ten Track Meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

His achievements at Big Ten landed him on the U.S. Track & Field team at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Arriving in Berlin as a track star Owens was met by throngs of young girls screaming for him and cutting pieces of his clothing off for keepsakes in a display rivaling the frenzied girls infected by beatlemania decades later. Durning his time at the Olympics (August 3rd-August 9th) Owens was escorted by soldiers to protect him from his fans. Winning four Olympic gold medals for the U.S.  Owens is credited for single handedly disproving Hitler's Aryan Racial Superiority Theory.   Hitler's response to Owens victory was to say the physiques of black athletes were stronger than those of whites and hence should be excluded from future games. It was reported that Hitler left the games early so that he would not have to congratulate Owens, as was customary for the leaders of the host nation to do. But Owens himself contradicted this by saying that Hitler had waived to Owens, and Owens waived back.

Even in Nazi Germany Owens was allowed to travel with and stay at the same hotels as whites, but not back home in the United States. At a Manhattan ticker-tape parade along Broadway's Canyon of Heroes and the following reception honoring him at the Waldorf Astoria Owens was still subjected to Racial Segregation, and was not allowed to use the front entrance of the hotel. Angered by this and that U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a democrat) never congratulated Owens on his olympic victory, Owens campaigned for the Republican Party during the 1936 Presidential Elections. At speaking engagements Owens spoke against Rosevelt saying "Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me... but remember that the President did not send me a message of congratulations because, people said, he was too busy." Adding that Rosevelt "didn't even send me a telegram." Several reports stated that Owens carried a photograph in his wallet of himself and Hitler shaking hands; if true this photo has yet to be publicly released.

In later life Jesse Owens struggled with bankruptcy stating that "There was no television, no big advertising, no endorsements then. Not for a black man, anyway." and had to resort to paid public appearances where he entertained audiences with gimmicks such as racing horses (which he routinely won).  To criticism of this line of work Owens said, "People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals."
In 1966 The U.S. government appointed Owens a US goodwill ambassador in which he traveled the globe conducting speaking engagements. He was eventually able to retire and even kept race horses. Owens died of lung cancer on on March 31, 1980, his heavy smoking habit listed as a contributor.