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The Hidden Truth About Jesse Owens’ Experience at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Jesse Owens record-breaking long jump at 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany.

“The most evil part of hypocrisy is not just failing to acknowledge what you did or didn’t do, but to believe you’re still really happy about it.” — Brazilian writer Augusto Branco


Jesse Owens (1913-1980) triumphed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning gold medals in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter relays, as well as in the long jump.

As the story goes, after Owens won his first gold medal, an incensed Hitler stormed out of the Olympic Stadium so he wouldn’t have to congratulate Owens on his victory.

Owens’s biographer William J. Baker says that the fake-news newspapers — then just as now — made up the whole story. Hitler wasn’t even at the stadium that second day.

Historian David Clay Large says German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels “gave orders to the German press not to mention race at all during the Games.”

Owens wasn’t shunned by the German audience at the Berlin stadium either. Baker wrote that Owens so captured the imagination of the crowd that it gave him several ear-shattering ovations.

Although “the experts” warned Owens to expect racial incidents, he stated that his reception in Berlin was greater than any other he had ever experienced. There were German cheers of “Yesseh Oh-vens!” or just “Oh-vens!” from the crowd.

Owens was a true celebrity in Berlin, mobbed by autograph seekers and fans on the streets. His Olympic suite and quarters were in the same place where white athletes stayed, which was a privilege that had been denied during that time in his own country (Altman 2015).

Despite his stardom, Owens received no scholarship money from Ohio State University. He had to work as an elevator operator, waiter and gas station attendant to support himself and his wife. After OSU, Owens worked as a playground janitor.

Unlike other U.S. athletes returning home with medals from the ’36 Olympics, Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t invite Owens to the White House, and Owens never received a letter of congratulations from the president. There were no offers to Owens from Hollywood, no endorsement contracts and no ad deals. His face didn’t appear on cereal boxes. He made a modest living from his own sports promotions, including racing against a thoroughbred horse.

Jesse Owens at the Twin Falls County Fairgrounds in September 1938. PHOTO: Boise State Public Radio

A Comradeship Connection with Luz Long

Carl Ludwig “Luz” Long was a German Olympic long-jumper who helped Owens to qualify for the long jump. In the qualifying rounds of the long jump, Owens had fouled his first two jumps. With one jump remaining, Long — a tall, blue-eyed, blond and a talented, model athlete in the Nazi era — introduced himself to Owens (Höfle 2015; Schwartz 2005). The two chatted awhile.

“You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed,” Long told Owens (Murray 2012).

Long said he had been watching Owens’ two jumps and made a mark at ground, a few centimeters before the take-off board (Broughton 2009; JOM, n.d.).

According to Owens, the top German jumper then advised him to calculate his last jump one foot before the takeoff board in order to jump from a safe place. Long knew that the American would easily reach 7.15 meters, and so he would avoid another null trial and disqualification (Altman 2015; Martinez 2012; Murray 2012).

Accepting Long`s advice, in his last jump, Owens marked 7.64 meters and qualified for the finals (Schwartz 2005; Sports Reference n.d.).

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German jumper Luz Long and Jess Owens at 1936 Olympic Games.

“Winning or losing is part of the sport. The way you win or lose is what makes you victorious or not.” — Brazilian footballer Caio Ribeiro


In reality, the long-jump competition between Long and Owens couldn’t have been more intense. Long equaled Owens best jump on his fifth leap at 7.87 meters. Owens, in his final jump, pulled a extraordinary leap of 8.06 meters. This world record stood for 25 years.

Long, who won the silver medal, congratulated gold medalist Ownns in the sandbox with a hug (SML 2013) and the two took a victory lap together, arm in arm, before the officials of the Nazi regime (IOC 2011) while the crowd stood up in ovation (Altman 2015).

Long gave his own version of the event in a story entitled “Mein Kampf mit Owens” [“My Battle with Owens”] published on Aug. 11, 1936, in the Neue Leipziger Zeitung, his hometown newspaper in Leipzig, Germany.

Long wrote:

“I couldn’t help myself. I ran up to him, and I was the first to embrace and congratulate him. He responded by saying: You forced me to give my best!”

Owens’ take:

“You can melt all the medals and cups I have, and that would not be worth anything compared to 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment” (IOC 2011; Martinez 2012).

The camaraderie and sportsmanship behaviors shown between Long and Owens throughout the competition wasn’t the least bit problematic to Adolf Hitler. According to the Aug. 10, 1936, edition of The New York Times:

“So delighted was Chancellor Hitler by the gallant fight that Long had made that he congratulated him privately just before he himself left the stadium.”

Long and Owens corresponded up until Long’s death in combat in North Africa in 1943. Years later, Owens met and became friends with Long’s son. This is Long’s last heart-felt letter to Owens.

source: Jesse: The Man Who Outran Hitler

I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father.

My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is a something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we not separated by war. I am saying — tell him how things can be between men on this earth.

If you do this something for me, this thing that I need the most to know will be done, I do something for you, now. I tell you something I know you want to hear. And it is true.

That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer.

Then I not know how I know. Now I do. I know it is never by chance that we come together. I come to you that hour in 1936 for purpose more than der Berliner Olympiade.

And you, I believe, will read this letter, while it should not be possible to reach you ever, for purpose more even than our friendship.

I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I have to tell you, Jesse.

I think I might believe in God.

And I pray to him that, even while it should not be possible for this to reach you ever, these words I write will still be read by you.

Your brother,
Luz

The Myth of Hitler’s Snub

After publicly shaking hands with event winners on the first day, the Olympic Committee approached Hitler and suggested that this practice was holding up the games. Hitler decided that he would discontinue the gesture. Then the American press — and in particular the fake news, then as now — The New York Times (aka New York Slimes) concocted the snub narrative. Other newspapers of the day quickly jumped on board and ramped up the American propaganda machine. Look how San Francisco portrays Owens and other black athletes. Meanwhile in Germany these athletes were applauded.

San Francisco Chronicle cartoon in 1936 shows a dumbfounded Hitler and depicts Jesse Owens and other American black athletes as monkeys.
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Jesse Owens’ daughter Marlene

In a 2016 news article titled “Evitato Roosevelt, non da Hitler. Un film rivela la verità di Owens” [“Shunned by Roosevelt, Not Hitler. A Film Reveals the Truth of Owens”] in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, reporter Gaia Piccardi writes that Jesse Owens’ daughter Marlene told the writers of the film that the old tale that her father was despised at the Olympics is not true.

“Actually, my father never felt snubbed by Hitler,” Marlene said in the news interview.

According to Owens in his autobiography (“Owens” 1970), Hitler gave a congratulatory wave and Owens waved back.

In the words of Owens himself:

“After I left the podium, I passed the grandstand to return to the locker room. The Chancellor looked at me. He stood up and greeted me with a wave of his hand. I did the same, answering the greeting. Journalists and writers showed bad taste reporting hostility that, in fact, there never was.”

And in “Triumph,” a book about the 1936 Olympics by Jeremy Schaap, Owens is quoted as saying, “Hitler didn’t snub me — it was [FDR] who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

And why not be magnanimous? Germany dominated the 1936 Olympics, winning 89 medals in total — 59% more than the second-in-place total. According to the Official Report of the Games, the ’36 Summer Olympics was a sporting event of gigantic proportions. These games represented all the ability of German organization, technical skill and craftsmanship (Organizing Committee 1937). It was a milestone in the history of the event. The Nazi state machine hosted the best Olympic Games until then (Sigoli & De Rose Jr. 2004).

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