Did Hitler Really Snub Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics?

This isn't the only Berlin Olympics misconception that's worth correcting

Hitler and Jesse Owens. Getty Images/Ed Vebell / Contributor

When he was competing, Ohio State track star James (“J.C.” JesseCleveland Owens (1913-1980) was as famous and admired as Carl Lewis, Tiger Woods, or Michael Jordan are today. (1996 Olympic champ Carl Lewis has been called the “second Jesse Owens.”) Despite Jesse Owens' athletic prowess, he faced racial discrimination when he returned to the US. But did this discrimination in his native land extend to his experience in Germany?

The US and the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Jesse Owens triumphed in Berlin, winning gold medals in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 400-meter relays, as well as in the long jump. But the fact that American athletes competed in the 1936 Olympics at all is still considered by many to be a blotch on the history of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Germany's open discrimination against Jews and other “non-Aryans” was already public knowledge when many Americans opposed U.S. participation in the “Nazi Olympics.” Opponents to U.S. participation included the American ambassadors to Germany and Austria. But those who warned that Hitler and the Nazis would use the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin for propaganda purposes lost the battle to have the U.S. boycott the Berlin Olympiade.

Myths and Truth: Jesse Owens in German

Hitler did shun a black American athlete at the 1936 Games. On the first day of the Olympics, just before Cornelius Johnson, an African-American athlete who won the first gold medal for the U.S. that day, was to receive his award, Hitler left the stadium early.

(The Nazis later claimed it was a previously scheduled departure.)

Prior to his departure, Hitler had received a number of winners, but Olympic officials informed the German leader that in the future he must receive all of the winners or none at all. After the first day, he opted to acknowledge none.

Jesse Owens had his victories on the second day, when Hitler was no longer in attendance. Would Hitler have snubbed Owens had he been in the stadium on day two? Perhaps. But since he wasn't there, we can only surmise.

Which brings us to another Olympic myth. It is often stated that Jesse Owens' four gold medals humiliated Hitler by proving to the world that Nazi claims of Aryan superiority were a lie. But Hitler and the Nazis were far from unhappy with the Olympic results. Not only did Germany win far more medals than any other country at the 1936 Olympics, but the Nazis had pulled off the huge public relations coup that Olympic opponents had predicted, casting Germany and the Nazis in a positive light. In the long run, Owens' victories turned out to be only a minor embarrassment for Nazi Germany.

In fact, Jesse Owens' reception by the German public and the spectators in the Olympic stadium was warm. 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 to the point that he complained about all the attention. He later claimed that his reception in Berlin was greater than any other he had ever experienced, and he was quite popular even before the Olympics.

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

After the Olympics: Owens and Franklin D. Roosevelt

Ironically, the real snubs of Owens came from his own president and his own country. Even after ticker-tape parades for Owens in New York City and Cleveland, President Franklin D. Roosevelt never publicly acknowledged Owens' achievements. Owens was never invited to the White House and never even received a letter of congratulations from the president. Almost two decades passed before another American president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, honored Owens by naming him “Ambassador of Sports” — in 1955.

Racial discrimination prevented Jesse Owens from enjoying anything close to the huge financial benefits that athletes can expect today.

When Owens came home from his success in Nazi Germany, he received no Hollywood offers, no endorsement contracts, and no ad deals. His face didn't appear on cereal boxes. Three years after his victories in Berlin, a failed business deal forced Owens to declare bankruptcy. He made a modest living from his own sports promotions, including racing against a thoroughbred horse. After moving to Chicago in 1949, he started a successful public relations firm. Owens was also a popular jazz disc jockey for many years in Chicago.

Some True Jesse Owens Stories

  • In Berlin, Owens competed wearing track shoes made by the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik, a German company. The Dassler brothers later split into two firms, known as Adidas and Puma.
  • In 1984, the Berlin street known as Stadionallee (Stadium boulevard), south of the Olympic stadium in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, was renamed Jesse-Owens-Allee. Owens' widow Ruth and his three daughters attended the dedication ceremonies on March 10 as guests of the German government. A memorial plaque for Owens is also located at the Olympiastadion.
  • The Jesse-Owens-Realschule/Oberschule (secondary school) is in Berlin-Lichtenberg.
  • Despite his stardom, Owens received no scholarship money from Ohio State University. He had to work as an elevator operator, waiter, and gas station attendent to support himself and his wife.
  • Two U.S. postage stamps have been issued to honor Owens, one in 1990 and another in 1998.
  • Jesse Owens was born in Danville, Alabama on Sept. 12, 1913. His family moved to Cleveland when he was nine. In 1949 the Owens settled in Chicago. His grave is in Chicago's Oak Woods Cemetery.
  • Owens became a heavy smoker following his athletic days. He died of lung cancer in Phoenix, Arizona on March 31, 1980.