James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) was a U.S. track and field athlete who specialized in the sprints and the long jump. He participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin,Germany, where he achieved international fame by winning four gold medals: one each in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and as part of the 4×100 meter relay team. He was the most successful athlete at the 1936 Summer Olympics, a victory more poignant and often noted because Adolf Hitler had intended the 1936 games to showcase the superiority of his Aryan ideals.
In 1936, Owens arrived in Berlin to compete for the U.S. in the Summer Olympics. Adolf Hitler was using the games to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. He and other government officials had high hopes that German athletes would dominate the games with victories. Meanwhile, Nazi propaganda promoted concepts of “Aryan racial superiority” and depicted ethnic Africans as inferior.
Owens surprised many, by winning four gold medals: On August 3, 1936, he won the 100m sprint; on August 4, the long jump; on August 5, the 200m sprint; and, after he was added to the 4 x 100 m relay team, he won his fourth on August 9 (a performance not equaled until Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events at the 1984 Summer Olympics).
Just before the competitions, Owens was visited in the Olympic village by Adi Dassler, the founder of the Adidas athletic shoe company. He persuaded Owens to use Adidas shoes, the first sponsorship for a male African-American athlete.
On the first day, 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.
Ironically, Owens was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites, while at the time blacks in many parts of the United States were denied equal rights. After a New York City ticker-tape parade of Fifth Avenuein his honor, Owens had to ride the freight elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria to reach the reception honoring him.
Owens spoiled the Aryan-superiority demonstration hoped for by Adolf Hitler during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Unfortunately, it would not be long before Hitler turned his focus toward the domination of Europe and the beginning of World War II.