For most track athletes competing in the Olympics, all they have to worry about is winning. Running, throwing or jumping better than they ever have in their lives to insure their places in the history books. Jesse Owens entered the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, not only with that on his mind, but with a myriad of racial and political implications at stake.
In the summer of 1935, Jesse Owens had broken 5 world records at a single meet, and with the Olympics the following year, many rightly regarded him as the favorite in multiple events. So you have the weight of expectation on your shoulders. Many athletes have to deal with that.
The complications arise when considering the fact that Owens, even as a star athlete in America, he was forced to ride in separate cars to athletics meets from his White teammates. America was happy for him to compete, but he was not treated as an equal even outside of day-to-day America. The dichotomy in American thought was striking, knowing the fact that the Amateur Athletic Union threatened to boycott the treatment of German Jews under Hitlers regime. The racist Nazi claims of Aryan superiority, angered Black people, and Owens seemingly needed to re-address the balance of thought after the German boxer Max Schmeling had beaten Joe Louis in early 1936.
In the space of less than an hour, Owens set 3 world records and tied another in the 100m, 200m, 400m relay and long jump. The long jump record stood for 25 years, and his haul of 4 track and field gold medals was only matched in 1980 by Carl Lewis.The brothers and Nazi supporters, Rudolph and Adolf Dassler, gave Owens the first sponsorship for an African-American athlete, which resulted in the boom of their sales, and the base for the formation of the now global brands, Puma and Adidas.
Hitler, disgusted and ashamed that Owens crushed the Aryan ideology, refused to shake Owens and the other Black athletes’ hands, which lead to further damning international press about Hitler. Even though Owens returned triumphantly to the America after the games, he still had to suffer the indignity of sitting at the back of the bus and entering through Black only doors. It didn’t seem to affect Owens much as he said:
I wasn’t invited up to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.
Although Owens has gone down as one of the most successful athletes of all time, the context in which he did all of these things shouldn’t be underestimated. 29 Blacks were lynched in the years 1935-6. Blacks served their country during war but were still treated as lower than second class citizens. Owens helped to squash at the time, but its interesting that White supremacist ideology is maintained and sustained today, by assertions that Black athletes these days are what they are because of what we [Whites] did to them [the breeding of slaves], and not in spite of what we [Whites] did to them. Owens’ feat was achieved before Jackie Robinson broke colour lines in baseball in 1947, and before the NFL started to become big business and opened its doors to Black players in 1946.