August 3, 2015 7:00 AM EDT 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 18 Groundbreaking Female Athletes Spanish tennis player Lili de Alvarez after she had beaten Molla Mallory in the lawn tennis ladies singles championships at Beckenham, England, on June 12, 1926. Alvarez made headlines in 1931 for wearing what TIME described that year as "a split skirt which resembled a pair of abbreviated pajamas" (in other words, shorts) at Wimbledon. G. Adams—Topical Press Agency/Getty Images A portrait of the 18-year-old Mexican matadora Conchita Cintron taking a bow after dispatching her first 52-stone bull, May 6, 1941. In 1947, TIME called her "the world's greatest female torero." Hulton-Deutsch Collection—Corbis Toni Stone, shortstop for the Indianapolis Clowns of the National Negro Leagues, works out in a photograph around 1950 in Indianapolis. She was the first woman to play in the otherwise-male Negro Leagues. Transcendental Graphics—Getty Images Babe Didrikson Zaharias sinks a putt at the All-American tournament at Chicago's Tam-O'Shanter Country Club in Chicago in 1951. She set a course record of 70 for women, and also won the World Championship, never going over par for her eight rounds. And golf wasn't her only sport: when she died in 1956, TIME noted that she set hurdles and javelin records in the 1932 Olympics, played baseball and "barnstormed nationally in basketball." Underwood Archives—Getty Images One of America's top ranking professional golfers Patty Berg practicing at Sunningdale, 1951. She was one of the founders of the LPGA (along with Zaharias) and TIME once noted that her father encouraged her to start golfing so she would stop playing football on a neighborhood boys team. Central Press—Getty Images Althea Gibson kisses the cup she was rewarded with after having won the French International Tennis Championships in Paris, May 26, 1956. Gibson broke the U.S. national championships color barrier and was on the cover of TIME in 1957. Bettmann/Corbis Olympic Giant Slalom skier Nancy Greene of Canada in Chamrousse, France, on Feb. 15, 1968, after she won the gold medal in the event at the Winter Olympics. The year before, she had become the first woman to win the World Cup of Alpine Skiing. TIME noted that year that she "uses her muscles on skis, and she does it better than any other woman in the world." AP Photo Kathrine Switzer roughed up by Jock Semple during the Boston Mararthon, April 19, 1967, the year she broke the gender barrier for the race. "I was so embarrassed and upset, but if I dropped out, everyone would have said that a woman couldn't do it," she later told TIME. Paul J. Connell—The Boston Globe via Getty Images Barbara Jo Rubin, 19-year-old veterinary student from Miami, holds the reins of her horse Cohesion, shortly after she rode him to victory at the racetrack of Charles Town, W.V., thus becoming the first female jockey to win a major pari-mutuel flat race in the United States, on Feb. 23, 1969. Later that year she became the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby. It wasn't an easy ride: TIME noted that she had had her dressing-room window smashed by a rock during a jockey boycott. AP Photo Pro tennis player Billie Jean King holds her newly won trophy high after beating Bobby Riggs in their $100,000 winner-take-all "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match on September 20, 1973. "[The] conventional wisdom [was] that an adequate male player should be able to beat a first-class woman," TIME commented. "Almost everyone was wrong." Bettmann/Corbis American tennis player Chris Evert (Chris Lloyd) with the Wimbledon Ladies Singles trophy after her victory over Russian competitor Olga Morozova, July 5, 1974. Evert was the first woman to earn $1 million playing tennis. Leonard Burt—Central Press/Getty Images Mary Decker of Colorado University crosses the finish line of the National AAU 10,000-meter road racing championship in Purchase, N.Y., Sept. 23, 1978. Decker, would become the first woman to record a time under 4:20 for the mile, was the top woman finisher and 47th overall. Richard Drew—AP Photo Former UCLA women's All-American Ann Meyers drives in during practice at the NBA rookie camp for the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis, Sept. 10, 1979, the year she became the first woman to get a contract in men's pro sports. Though the signing was called a stunt by many, Meyers told TIME that she could "dribble and make plays as well as anybody in the league." AP Photo Laurent F. Fignon, left, of France, and Marianne Martin of Boulder, Colorado, hold up their trophies in Paris Sunday, July 23, 1984 after winning the men’s and women’s Tour de France cycling races. This was the first year for the women’s event. AP Photo Musher Libby Riddles stands in front of the City Hall at Nome, Alaska, March 20, 1985, shortly after crossing the finish line, thus becoming the first female champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. "Two weeks into the 18-day trek, while her competition opted to sit out a fierce snowstorm," TIME reported, "the musher from Teller, Alaska, pressed on with her team of 13 dogs." AP Photo Michelle Akers of the United States, right, prepares to shoot against Brazil next to Marcia Silva of Brazil during their Group B match of the First FIFA Womens World Cup in Guangzhou China, on Nov. 19, 1991. That year, TIME called her "the Michael Jordan of soccer" and noted that she had almost earned a tryout for the Dallas Cowboys kicking coach. In 1999, she became the first soccer player on a Wheaties box. Chen Gou—Imaginechina/AP Photo Goalie Manon Rheaume of the Tampa Bay Lightning sits on the bench during an NHL preseason game against the St. Louis Blues on Sept. 23, 1992, at the Expo Hall in Tampa, Fla. Rheaume was the first woman to play in the NHL, though she didn't appear in the regular season. After a 1992 game, TIME noted that a sportswriter had just one question for her: "'Did you break a nail?'' B Bennett—Getty Images The USA's Jackie Joyner-Kersee walks the track at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona on Aug. 2, 1992, after winning the gold medal in the Heptathlon competition during the Summer Olympic Games. She was the first woman ever to pass 7,000 points in the event. Rusty Kennedy—AP Photo Five young women take part in a display of the Olympic Rings at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin Popperfoto—Getty Images Beginning of the eleventh Olympic Games. Aug. 1,1936. Imagno—Getty Images USA's legendary Jesse Owens on his way to winning one of his four gold medals, in the men's 100 meter final at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin Popperfoto—Getty Images The 13-year-old springboard diver Marjorie Gestring at the Olympic Games in Berlin. Aug. 12, 1936. Austrian Archives/Imagno—Getty Images A German technician checks the Television canon put in the Olympic Stadium, Aug. 1, 1936. The huge electronic camera build by Telefunken broadcast live for the first time, 8 hours each day, the Berlin Olympics Games show. CORR/AFP—Getty Images Jesse Owens and Helen Stephens at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936 Photo 12/UIG—Getty Images Gisela Mauermayer, of Germany, winner of the gold medal in the Discus event at the 1936 Olympic Games. Bob Thomas/Popperfoto—Getty Images Dr. Joseph Goebbels, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, Reichs Sports Leader Hans von Tschammer und Osten and Generalfeldmarschall Werner von Blomberg observe the Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany in August 1936. AP Photo Winner of the men's javelin throw event at the Summer Olympic Games, German athlete Gerhard Stoeck. in action on Aug. 6, 1936 in Berlin AP Photo The Women's 80 Meter Hurdles at the 1936 Olympic Games, in Berlin Popperfoto—Getty Images The Racing Cyclists Robert Charpentier, Guy Lapebie, Jean Goujon and Roger Le Nizerhy just after having won at the Olympic Games in Berlin in August 1936. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone—Getty Images Basketball action between the Philippines and Mexico at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin Popperfoto—Getty Images The German female javelin throwers Tilly Fleischer (Gold Medal) and Luis Kruger (Silver Medal) with Polish bronze-medalist Marja Kwasniewska, on the podium at the Olympic Games In Berlin on Aug. 2, 1936. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone—Getty Images Germany's Tilly Fleischer, who won the gold medal in women's javelin, at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin Popperfoto—Getty Images Olympic broad jump medalists salute during the medals ceremony at the Summer Olympics in Berlin. From left on podium are: bronze medalist Jajima of Japan, gold medalist Jesse Owens of the United States and silver medalist Lutz Long of Germany. Aug. 11, 1936. AP Photo Olympic winner Gustav 'Gummi' Schaefer, German rower, with the laurel wreath during the Summer Olympics in Berlin-Grünau in August 1936. Schirner Sportfoto/picture-alliance/dpa—AP Photo A stonemason at work records the feat of USA's Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals in the Games, in 1936 in Berlin Popperfoto—Getty Images More Must-Reads From TIME Meet the 2024 Women of the Year Greta Gerwig's Next Big Swing East Palestine, One Year After Train Derailment In the Belly of MrBeast The Closers: 18 People Working to End the Racial Wealth Gap How Long Should You Isolate With COVID-19? The Best Romantic Comedies to Watch on Netflix Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time