August 3, 1936 – The day that Jesse Owens won his first gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. This first medal, of the eventual four gold medals that he would win, was for the 100 meter sprint. With this achievement, Jesse Owens began the unraveling of Hitler’s “Aryan racial superiority” theory.
But this triumph (one that wasn’t equaled until Carl Lewis won his gold medals in the 1984 Summer Olympics) wasn’t Owens’ greatest. That would be the day in 1935 that he broke 3 world records and tied a fourth in ONE DAY at a Big Ten meet where he was representing Ohio University. This is the day that sportscasters have selected as one of the best athletic achievements of all time.
This is just one of the numerous fascinating things I learned about Jesse Owens when researching materials for this blog post. Did you know that his real name is James Cleveland and he went by JC until a teacher in his new school in Ohio misunderstood his southern accent and wrote his name down as “Jesse”? How about the fact that Hitler sent him a commemorative photograph after the 1936 Olympics, but Owens never received recognition from Presidents Roosevelt or Truman? Or that he married his high school sweetheart and they stayed together for the rest of his life?
To learn more about this great figure in African-American and sports history, try one of these:
Jesse Owens: An American Life by William J. Baker – After his stunning victories at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens seemed to be living the American rags to riches dream. But once he was banned from amateur sports for declining to be involved in a post-Olympic event, the lucrative sponsorships and deals dried up in the face of prejudice. Owens used all of his wits and talents to earn money, but spent more than he earned, eventually running afoul of the IRS. His social and political beliefs did not always coincide with those around him, but his big personality made him popular in many circles. Owens led an extraordinary life.
Heroes without a Country: America’s Betrayal of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens by Donald McRae – These two friends had lives that followed similar unfortunate paths. Both received recognition in the mid-1930s for their outstanding athletic achievements. But due to the rampant racism in America at the time, neither was able to parlay that into financial success. Periods of poverty and working menial jobs punctuated their lives. Owens was able to keep it together but had to watch his friend, Louis, struggle with addiction and mental illness. This book tells their story honestly.
Blackthink: My Life as a Black Man and a White Man by Jesse Owens – Owens story in his own words. He writes about his triumphs at the Olympic Games in Nazi Germany and his struggles when he returned to the United States. But this is also his views on racism and effecting change for racial equality. His life and beliefs in his own words.
Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics by Jeremy Schaap – What happens when sports and world politics collide? The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. This tell-all book goes behind the scenes to uncover the real story of the games, the participants, and those pulling the strings. More happened at these Olympics than you could ever imagine!
Hope you enjoy all the Olympic moments this year’s games have to offer.