Jesse Owens' Olympic Triumph over Time and Hitlerism

By Bennett, Lerone, Jr. | Ebony, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Jesse Owens' Olympic Triumph over Time and Hitlerism


Bennett, Lerone, Jr., Ebony


`YES-SAY!"

"YES-SAY!"

"Yes-say OV-ENS!"

The chant came in heavy German accents from almost 100,000 throats.

Like the roar of thunder, like the rushing sound of mighty waters, it rolled over the screaming throng and reverberated against the gray stone walls of the new Olympic Stadium.

The object of all this adulation, an unassuming young track star named Jesse Owens, acknowledged the roar of the crowd and moved toward the victors' stand. At almost the same moment, there was a flurry of activity in the official box, high in the stands, as Adolf Hitler, dictator of Germany and defender of Nordic supremacy, gathered his entourage and swept out of the stadium.

That scene, the most memorable tableau of the 1936 Olympics, would become a legend and would be passed on from generation to generation, growing in the telling, the story of an incredible moment of truth when the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves temporarily derailed the Nazi juggernaut and gave the lie to Hitler's theories on Aryan (read White) supremacy.

Thirty-seven years later a panel of major sportswriters would call Jesse Owens' Olympic triumph the most important sports story of the century. But this story, which will be told as long as men and women celebrate grace and courage, was more than a sports story. It was politics, history even, played out on an international stage with big stakes riding on every contest.

No one understood this better than Adolf Hitler, who mobilized all the resources of Germany and spent some $50 million in a vain attempt to turn the 1936 Olympics into an athletic plebiscite for the ideals and political aims of the Third Reich. Even at the early date, the German fuehrer was dreaming of world domination and the extermination of Jews, Blacks and other "lesser breeds." And the magnificent forum he constructed for the games was frankly designed to showcase the spiritual and physical superiority of the blond, blue-eyed conquerors of the new order. To further his aim, the strongest and swiftest German athletes were organized into semi-military brigades, and battalions of craftsmen worked day and night for almost two years to build the gleaming new Olympic Stadium, which was widely considered the finest facility of its kind in the world.

But history, partial as always to irony and surprise, turned Hitler's idea inside out, like a glove, using as its instrument 22-year-old Jesse Owens, who was arguably the greatest of all Olympians and the greatest and most famous of an track stars. In what some writers call "the most memorable week in Olympic history," Owens achieved one of the greatest feats in modern Olympic track competition, winning four gold medals.

A child of the history Hitler despised and vowed to exterminate, Owens had been fine-tuned by history for the role history asked him to play. The seventh of 11 children of a share-cropper, born James Cleveland Owens in Oakville, Ala., on September 12, 1913, he had been running hard against the Hitlers of the world since he was sent to the cottonfield to pick cotton at the age of seven. Tempered and toughened by that ordeal, he moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio, where he picked up the name Jesse and ran, for the sheer love of running, in streets and alleys. There was, even then, something unique about Jesse Owens. He didn't run, he floated, seeming, as one of his coaches said later, "to caress the ground." There was beauty, poetry even, in the fluid, effortless, "velvety smooth" glide which made him a formidable foe at East Technical High School, where he set national AAU records, and Ohio State, where, unbelievable as it may seem now, he did not receive a scholarship and was forced to wait on tables and run elevators to pay his tuition.

It was at this juncture, on May 25, 1935, a little more than a year before the Olympics, that the Ohio State sophomore achieved international fame in "the greatest day in track history" and "the most astounding single day ever experienced by any athlete in any sport. …

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