On Aug. 5, 1936, American athlete and Track and Field legend Jesse Owens won the 200 meter dash in world record time (20.7 seconds) to claim his third gold medal of the Berlin Summer Olympics. Owens would win four golds in those games — 100m, 200m, 4x100m and long jump — and the world’s greatest athletic competition would suspend for 12 years while dozens of countries descended into World War II.
The 1936 games are an incredible topic to read about, with various perspectives that help one understand their weight in history. Adolf Hitler was the chancellor of Germany at the time and used the Olympics to promote his relatively newfound government and ideals of racial supremacy and antisemitism.
The Nazi party’s official newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, published several issues leading up to the Games that condemned Jewish athletes and advised participating countries to exclude them from competition. The majority of countries abided by the recommendation and side-lined their Jewish athletes so as not to offend the host country and regime.
Hitler flexed his financial position by constructing a new, 100,000-seat track and field stadium exclusively for the Games, along with six gymnasiums and additional, smaller arenas. He had the German Olympic Committee commission filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to film the weeks-long event, a project she compiled into the film Olympia, which utilized many techniques now popular in the filming of sports: Unusual camera angles, smash cuts, close-ups and tracking shots. These Olympics were, in every sense of the word, intended to be a point of pride and propaganda for Hitler and his strengthening Nazi Germany.
These Olympics were the first for the sport of basketball, which saw the gold, silver and bronze medals awarded to the U.S.A., Canada and Mexico, respectively. The medals were awarded by James Naismith, the credited inventor of the sport.
While Germany won the majority of medals overall with 89 to second-place U.S. at 56, the notable defeats by America were said at the time to be a metaphorical defeat of Hitler’s Aryan supremacy belief. Owens’ achievements in particular were the driving force behind this defeat due to his race; black people at the time were considered universally inferior to white people. According to Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and War Production in the Nazi regime, Hitler voiced his belief that people “whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive…and hence should be excluded from future games.”
Despite the comments from the chancellor, Owens remarked and maintained throughout his life that Hitler treated him better than his own president at the time, Franklin D Roosevelt. Owens was allowed to enter and stay in the same hotels as whites in Germany, something illegal in America at the time. Owens was not congratulated upon his return home from the Games by the president nor was he invited to the White House per tradition. Following the Olympics, Owens struggled to find work and faced severe discrimination despite his former prominence.
Owens’ story is one of many that cement the 1936 Olympics as truly history and fascinating. Glenn Morris, an American farm boy from Colorado, won the Decathlon at age 24 by scoring a world record 7,900 points.
The U.S. eight-man rowing team, comprised of athletes from the University of Washington, came back from behind to win gold over the Germans and Italians, with Hitler in attendance. Of course, if these stories aren’t enough, there’s always Betty Robinson, one of the legs of the U.S. women’s 4x100m relay team. Robinson was the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field (at the 1928 Games) and was involved in a plane crash in 1931. Despite being unable to walk for several years, she eventually returned to athletics in 1936 where she helped the women win gold.
It’s important for sports fans to know the history of their individual and collective athletic endeavors. The point of each sport is rudimentary at heart, but the impact the games have in shaping societies, cultures and lifestyles radiate around the world and through generations. The 1936 Summer Olympics offer a window into the political nature sports can take on as well as the awe-inspiring will they can instill in their participants. They illustrate how athletes can be stars one moment and shunned the next. As with every Olympic Games, they show us how sports connect us all, across borders and ideologies, and for those fleeting hours, minutes or seconds, turn us into competitors, equal in that stillness before the gun fires, whistle blows or torch is lit.