African-American Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. No other Olympian had achieved so much in previous Olympics. His success was a major blow to Adolph Hitler, who had hoped to showcase Aryan superiority at the games.
The grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper, Owens’ victories were significant on many levels. Perhaps most importantly, it affirmed that an individual’s performance distinguishes one more so than race, religion or national origin.
The 5-foot-10, 165-pound Owens won his first final in the 100 meters by edging out teammate Ralph Metcalfe.
The following day, Owens was nearly out of the long jump competition after qualifying began. He fouled on his first two jumps. One of the jumps was a practice run, but officials counted it as an attempt.
With just one jump remaining, Luz Long, a German long jumper who was Owens’ toughest competition, introduced himself. Long had the blond hair, blue-eyed look that Hitler so favoured, yet Long didn’t buy into the “master race” propaganda that Hitler espoused.
He offered a suggestion to Owens. To play it safe, make your mark several inches before the takeoff board and jump from there. Owens used the advice and qualified on his last jump.
Later that afternoon, Long’s fifth jump matched Owens’ 25-10 in the finals. But Owens won the gold medal with a final jump of 26-5½ on his last jump. The first to congratulate Owens was Long.
“It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens said. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.
Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.”
Owens added to his gold medal count with wins in the 200 meters and the 4×100 meter relay. The German crowd at the stadium, some 110,000 strong at times, cheered his accomplishments and sought his autograph in the streets during the games.
Jesse Owens’ inspirational sports story captured newspaper headlines across the world.