In 1936 Jesse Owens arrived in Berlin to compete for the United States in the Summer Olympics. Adolf Hitler was using the games to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. Nazi propaganda promoted concepts of “Aryan racial superiority” and depicted ethnic Africans as inferior. Owens countered this by winning four gold medals.
Nevertheless, Hitler personally penned a letter to Owens to congratulate him on his spectacular victories. This is more than what he got from the USA presidents. On the first day of competition, Hitler shook hands only with the German victors and then left the stadium. Olympic committee officials insisted Hitler greet every medalist or none at all. Hitler opted for the latter and skipped all further medal presentations. On reports that Hitler had deliberately avoided acknowledging his victories, and had refused to shake his hand, Owens said at the time:
“Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the ‘man of the hour’ in another country.”
During the Olympics, Owens was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels in Germany as whites, while at the time African Americans in many parts of the United States had to stay in segregated hotels while traveling. Later Owens said:
“When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either. Hitler didn’t snub me – it was Roosevelt who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
- Jesse Owens and the German athlete on the right Luz Long became friends during the Olympics. Luz Long gave tips to Jesse Owens that maybe saved the competition for him, and congratulated and embraced him after the win with the utmost sportsmanship They remained in correspondence until Long was killed in Sicily when the Allies invaded the island. Owens said: “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the twenty-four karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment”.
- Jesse Owens won those gold medals wearing shoes given to him by Adolf “Adi” Dassler, the founder of Adidas who was also a Nazi. German shoemaker Adolf “Adi” Dassler didn’t view the Berlin Games as a vehicle for Nazi propaganda but as a chance to launch his humble athletic shoe business. He successfully lobbied not only German athletes, but Owens as well, to wear his personally handcrafted leather track shoes with extra long spikes.