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Jesse Owens: The Olympian Who Accidentally Stood up to Hitler

Jesse Owens May Not Have Snubbed Hitler As Such / CC BY-SA 2.0 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Jesse Owens Accidentally Stood Up To Hitler, But Purposefully Stood Up To Poverty

There is a sort of myth that has gathered a lot of moss over the years about Jesse (J.C) Owens and how his four, count em', four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany showed-up Adolph Hitler and his perfect Aryan athletes. For those who don't know, Adolph Hitler believed that blond haired blue eyed humans were the superior form in body and mind. At the 1936 Olympics Hitler congratulated German and Finnish athletes, but when it came time to shake hands with the dark skinned American, he decided not to shake hands with any more athletes at all. Of course, on the surface Jesse's victory looks like a great big "up yours" to the Fuhrer by America and more specifically by Owens. But if you do a bit of research, you will be surprised to find that Owens didn't necessarily see it that way, especially at that moment.

Jesse Owens did go on over the years to reveal that he felt most people (though not necessarily all) could overcome the adversity in their lives and succeed. He believed that individual achievement trumped pedigree or race. But at the time of the 1936 Olympics, J.C. just wanted to win his events, he didn't care much about the political background.

The son of an Alabama sharecropper and the grandson of a slave, James Cleveland Owens' running career began in 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio. He quickly made a name for himself in his younger years gaining a new Junior High School record in the broad jump reaching 22 feet 11 and 3/4 inches! He won all his high school track events and won the Ohio state track meets three years in a row. During his senior year at the Interscholastic Track Meet in Chicago Owens tied the world high school record for the 100 yard dash at 9.4 seconds and created a new world high school record for the 220 yard dash in 20.7 seconds. He later went on to Ohio State University without a scholarship, working several jobs at once to support his wife and pay for school. All the while, breaking even more collegiate track records. At the Big Ten Championships in 1935 Owens broke three world records and tied another, this was a prelude of what was to come.

Again it was at the 1936 Olympics where Jesse won four gold medals. When reporters asked Jesse if he was upset that Adolf Hitler refused to shake his hand, he purportedly claimed that the media had blown it out of proportion. It's important not to judge Owens in the hindsight of history. At the time, Hitler was known more as "the man of the hour" in world politics for bringing Germany out of it's economical depression. Few people had heard of Dachau or believed or knew about the "work will set you free" camps. The American media was still touting George Washington's avoid all foreign entanglements mantra. Though undoubtedly by 1936 Hitlers abuse of Jews, Gypsies and anyone he deemed inferior was made public in some manner. When asked about Hitler's snub years later Jesse said that supposedly Adolf Hitler had even waved to him at the event, if not coming down from the stands and shaking hands. Whereas sitting American President at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't bother to send a telegram of congratulations to the first American to win four gold medals, nor was he invited to the White House or ever publicly recognized in any way by FDR. In one of the most pathetic moments in the history of the United States, Owens was relegated to using the freight elevator at his own recognition dinner after his own ticker tape parade, since the regular elevator was whites only. It wasn't until many years later in the 1970s that Presidents' Ford and Carter recognized this great American athlete by giving him the Medal Of Freedom and Living Legend Award respectively.

Jesse Owens receiving 1936 gold medal in Berlin

Image courtesy wikimedia commons: Bundesarchiv

Image courtesy wikimedia commons: Bundesarchiv

Read more about this great Olympian here:

Jesse Owens wished to be remembered as someone who helped and inspired those in need

Jesse Owens had become quite a star in the eyes of regular Germans. He even befriended another German athlete Lutz Long, who ironically enough aided Owens in winning one of his medals, but was later killed in World War II. Another little known fact is that Jesse Owens wore a pair of German made shoes when he won his golds at the Berlin Olympics. Also, a secondary school in Berlin was later named in his honor.

Jesse Owens spent the remainder of his life traveling around the country, mainly public speaking and helping out with various impoverished youth programs. At that time, mainly because of the barriers of racial prejudice still at work, Jesse Owens did not receive any of the lucrative commercial deals that so many athletes receive today. Jesse Owens still had a difficult time making a living once returning to his own country. Despite all this adversity, Owens maintained that he was a lucky man, to have been given a great opportunity in life. Despite the political protests over the years, he believed that the Olympics should always be a "time out" from politics, a time when the world should examine the excellence of it's individual members. Later on in life, Jesse said he believed everyone needed to deal with their own "Hitler's" in their own way. He believed that you can achieve what you want from life if you work hard enough and believe in yourself. He also relented that not all people have the same "head start" as others, and that for certain impoverished or prejudiced peoples, their struggle was even more difficult.

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Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on November 08, 2011:

Thanks rightfit4life, again another story I've heard many times myself but I didn't realize the true details until researching a little further.

Your welcome.


Lynda Barton from Raleigh, NC on November 05, 2011:

Wow, what a great story retold. Loved this article, touched me on so many levels! Thank you.

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 16, 2011:

Scroll to Continue

Thanks MAN, I sincerely hope so. I admire his perseverance and also his rare magnanimity and also his just plain helping other people in need.


MAN on February 16, 2011:

this is good Jesse Owens would be very proud.

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on November 20, 2010:

I couldn't have said it better myself J. Thanks for reading my ode here, this is one of my favorite pieces. Jesse Owens a true hero.

Buffalo Ben

J. McCoy from CA (originally) on November 19, 2010:

Awesome article, Ben! I don't know why I clicked on this one. I usually don't go out of my way to read about history. But, I 'm glad I did because you put a lot of interesting stuff in it. I really like Owens perspective about a "time out" in politics. It's also sad that he had to take a service elevator at a party in his honor and was ignored by FDR. Maybe Owens was a buffalo eater and that's why he beat the Germans.

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on October 02, 2010:

Thank you kindly attemptedhumour! I am honored that you think Jesse Owens would be proud, I really hope so.



attemptedhumour from Australia on October 02, 2010:

Great hub Ben, what a man he was and what a man you are for honoring him in such a well written way. He would be as proud of you, as you are of him. Cheers

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on April 22, 2010:

Thank you kindly Enelle! I appreciate your warm response.

Enelle Lamb from Canada's 'California' on April 21, 2010:

An excellent hub, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thumbs up from me :)

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 28, 2010:

Thanks 2besure, I can't even imagine seeing it in real time. It would seem surreal to me, but maybe that is because of the light of history. So much for the master race indeed.

Pamela Lipscomb from Charlotte, North Carolina on February 27, 2010:

I remember that! Boy, was the Fuhrer Hot that day! So much for the master race. LOL

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 24, 2010:

Akirchner you hit the nail on the head with your comment. I agree wholeheartedly!!!

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 24, 2010:

Ghostwhisper! Your comment hit home with me as I am not much of an athlete/sports fan either, mainly I pay attention when I think an athlete rises above his fame and stands out among all the arrogance and exorbitant paychecks and inspires people, a certain former Green Bay Packer quarterback comes to mind...anyway I agree with you also on Owens heavenly rewards as well! Thanks for reading!


Audrey Kirchner from Washington on February 24, 2010:

Great portrait of a great athlete - thinking about how hard it was 'back when' to be an athlete and win metals honestly without enhancements etc. is astonishing enough - but to think he was also a black athlete. Think we need to remember (as in so many things) the purpose of why we have institutions such as the Olympics and what it all truly means. Inspirational hub to say the least.

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 24, 2010:

Thanks Anita, it always means a lot to me too when someone points out a new part of a story I've never heard of before. As satisfying as it was to know that Hitler was perturbed by Owens performance (some would say more, some would say less) I feel like J.C. let the Adolf's of the world really have it by not being bitter in his situation, working hard, and standing up for the weak, what a great person Jesse Owens was!

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 24, 2010:

I appreciate it Mike, it must feel good to the Owens family that their Father is so warmly remembered at the very least! I know what you mean about the "prepackaged" athletes of today, although they aren't all smug, many of them could still learn from the humility of Jesse Owens.

JG the IGNITER from The U.S. Government protects Nazi War Criminals on February 23, 2010:


Great hub on Owens. I am not a big sports fan of any type of sports and never quite liked history either-so when I say this was a great hub to read--it really was! The picture of the crowd-the Nazi evil Heil Hitler salute- upsetting to me on many levels!

Oh and by the way..I think Owen;s reward & recognition down here may have been small but I am sure that he was rewarded greatly ;)

Anita Revel from Margaret River on February 23, 2010:

oh the irony of being relegated to the freight elevator at his own event honouring him! I never realised... and how poignant that he felt more slighted by his own president than by Adolf Hitler! Great work, I have learned something new (again) today!

Mike Lickteig from Lawrence KS USA on February 23, 2010:

Owens was a role model without trying to be a role model, and the way he carried himself both by winning the gold medals and in dealing with Hitler's snub demonstrated what made him someone to emulate. Just as significant is the realization that this was long before athletes were processed, packaged and set before the world as icons by agents, media spokespersons, and corporate sponsors.

The man dealt with victory and life from his heart and demonstrated grace and class in doing so.

Thanks for the tribute.


Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 23, 2010:

Thanks Janny, I've been inspired by Owens for a long time too, I like underdogs, especially like JC, who barely even notice that they are!

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 23, 2010:

Glad you liked it Suziecat, it took me awhile to research, although it's still not as long as some writers work here on HubPages, but I do try!

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 23, 2010:

Thanks for the compliment on my writing Tom and I agree with you, too bad that Jesse Owens didn't get his dues at his heyday. At least he did get some reward & recognition towards the end of this life, albeit modest.

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 23, 2010:

Nell, I know what you mean about the Nazi Heil Hitler salute, it is chilling. I thought of using it for the first image but then thought Owens deserved that spot more, thanks for reading!

JannyC on February 23, 2010:

Awesome and inspiring hub! Nice pitch too since we are in the Olympics sprirt here with the winter games. Entertaining and informative I like.

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 23, 2010:

Hello hello! Thanks for the addition, I did here that about the Addidas, I think the other half of that company turned into Ascics? Or some such brand? Anyway, thank you for reading and reminding me, I'll try and get around to making that edit!

suziecat7 from Asheville, NC on February 22, 2010:

I really enjoyed this Hub and learning so much more than I knew about Jesse Owens - thanks.

Tom Cornett from Ohio on February 22, 2010:

Wonderful hub about a true American hero. It is sad that he wasn't awarded the great respect that he earned and deserved in his time. Again...wonderful hub!

Nell Rose from England on February 22, 2010:

Hi, this is a great hub. I knew a little about it, but now realise how great Jesse Owens was. I found the photo of Jesse receiving his medal, with the German giving the Hitler salute behind him, very chilling and scary. knowing what was to come, it makes my blood run cold. thanks for a great story. Nell .

Hello, hello, from London, UK on February 22, 2010:

Hello, Ben, regarding to those shoes, I can add a little history to it. These shoes were invented by Adolf Dassler of Adidas. They were the first shoes with studs which were made by the local blacksmith. Then Adolf Dassler cycled to the Olympics from Herzogenaurach near Nuremberg to Berlin. Thank you for writing such wonderful hub about a wonderful person. That is what I call an educated man. You don't get from books because it is not written anywhere; you either got or not.

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 22, 2010:

GL: Funny I forgot about Black history month when writing this but you're right February is, I need to try and do this consciously in the future ha! I'm glad the world is waking up too my friend!

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 22, 2010:

Thanks Pamela I never thought of it that way, that puts a much brighter light on things. I do believe that Jesse Owens was in the middle of the fight for certain people to enjoy more of the "pursuit of happiness" part of our Declaration of Independence!

Hillary from Atlanta, GA on February 22, 2010:

Terrific Hub, Ben and timely any month of the year to honor such a great athlete. I think it's Black History month too! Hitler not shaking Owens' hand is one thing, (no surprise there), but not to receive a letter of congratulations from FDR is downright disgusting. In those days (and beyond) all black heroes, celebrated performers and ordinary citizens alike were subject to humiliations like those you've outlined here. I'm glad the world is waking up.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on February 22, 2010:

Excellent hub of Jesse Owens. Life would be so different if he lived and won the gold medal today but he was clearly a hero and a great man.

Ben Zoltak (author) from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on February 22, 2010:

prettydarkhorse, thank you, I have been inspired by Jesse Owens for many years. After researching this article, I began to realize that, he was an even greater man than I first realized, only for reasons different than the myth he is associated with.

blackmarx, thanks! I've been meaning to write this for many months, but with the Olympics on all the time, like you said, time to ride the wave of hype a little!

blackmarx from Cameron, WIsconsin on February 22, 2010:

awesome hub traffic play on the Olympic hype.

prettydarkhorse from US on February 22, 2010:

brilliant hub for a man who has dignity, Well done Ben, I like people who inspire people to be good and those who helped uplift poverty -- he deserve this hub-- Maita

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