TIME Sports

See the Controversial Drama of Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Summer Olympics

On Aug. 3, 1936, Jesse Owens won his first gold medal. But that year's Olympic Games had a sinister side, too.

It was no surprise that the 1936 Summer Olympics were going to be complicated. The wrangling had begun months before the games, as the U.S. considered whether to pull out of the games over the suspicion that Jewish athletes were not being allowed to compete for spots on teams for the host nation, Germany. By the time Hitler and the German team opened the games that August, TIME noted that the athletic events were being overshadowed by “other doings in Berlin.” (In that issue of the magazine, the Games shared space with the news that the German church was protesting Naziism and that Charles Lindbergh was in the country and meeting top Nazi officials.)

“Whether or not the Olympic Games actually serve their purpose of promoting international understanding remains dubious,” TIME commented the following week.

The bright spot was Jesse Owens. It was on this day, Aug. 3, in 1936, that Ohio’s track phenom won the gold in the 100-m. dash, after setting a new record for that race the day before. Before the week was up, he had won at the long jump and the 200-m. dash, and helped bring a relay team to first place too.

At the Owens cabana in the Olympic Village, awed rivals crowded to feel the Owens muscles, get the Owens autograph. In Cleveland Governor Martin L. Davey decreed a Jesse Owens Day. Over the radio, Mrs. Henry Cleveland Owens described her son: “Jesse was always a face boy. . . . When a problem came up, he always faced it.” Said Face Boy Owens, before his fourth trip to the Victory Stand to have a laurel wreath stuck on his kinky head, be awarded a minute potted oak tree and the Olympic first prize of a diploma and a silver-gilt medal: “That’s a grand feeling standing up there. … I never felt like that before. . . .”

Not everyone, of course, saw Owens’ victories as highlights. Hitler famously refused to congratulate him; as TIME explained in the same story, a prominent Nazi theory to explain why the U.S. was beating the host nation so much was “that Negroes are not really people” but rather an “auxiliary force” brought in by the otherwise disappointing real (white) American team. Despite the attempt to explain away the wins with such falsehoods, Owens had proved Hitler’s theories about race differences wrong.

When Owens died in 1980, TIME noted that his time on the track ended up ultimately less important than his timing in history: “At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which Adolf Hitler hoped would be a showcase of Aryan supremacy, Owens won four gold medals in track and field events, a feat not equaled since. The sight of the graceful American’s soaring victory in the long jump and his Olympic-record wins in the 100-and 200-meter dashes and 400-meter relay put the lie to der Führer’s simplistic myths about race.”

Read more about Jesse Owens from 1936, here in the TIME Vault: Hero Owens

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