75 years ago today, Jesse Owens won his fourth and final Gold Medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, something which would not be duplicated in track and field until the 1984 games by Carl Lewis. As amazing as this athletic feet was, it is arguably just the second most impressive thing which Owens ever accomplished. In 1935, he broke three world records in a span of 45 minutes, quite possibly the most impressive athletic accomplishment of all time.
Owen’s fame from the 1936 Olympics has always been intimately tied to the fact that the games were in Berlin. An African American man dominated the track at Hitler’s Olympc games. In the face of such evil, Owens shined bright; he showed that no race was superior over another in a spectacle meant to showcase the Aryan might.
I believe that these charectarizations are a bit overstated.
Not to diminish his accomplishments, but Hitler still went on to kill millions of people. It’s not like he saw how athletic Owens was and suddenly became really tolerant and accepting towards people who were different.
In fact, as former Nazi architect Albert Speer noted in a book about Hitler’s Third Reich, the Furor had little appreciation for Owens:
He was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.
So Hitler didn’t even believe Owens should have been able to legitimately compete in the games.
From all accounts, Owens was a wonderful human being, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to historically make him something that he was not. Owens was a great athlete, but he was not a civil rights leader. There were times when he was supportive towards endeavors of athletes who actually fought for civil rights, but I think that is a far cry from the way in which many think of his legacy.