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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Jesse Owens Wins His Fourth Gold Medal, August 9, 1936

MP3 File
Today in 1936, James Cleveland Owens won his fourth gold medal during a 4-man 100 meter relay run. Jesse, as he was known, was the first American to win four golds in a single Olympiad; his record would not be equaled until 1984. More than just an athletic competition, the 1936 Olympic Games were a political show intended to showcase the superiority of the so-called "Aryan" race. Jesse Owens, an American of African descent, was instrumental in showing how phony that superiority really was.

The Summer Olympics were held in Berlin in 1936. Germany had been granted the games by the International Olympic Committee in 1931, two years before Adolf Hitler came to power. The Nazis planned to use the games as a means of letting the world know about their ideology. A documentary was to be made about the Olympics, a film titled "Olympia" by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who was a great admirer of Hitler. The games would also be televised to local shops and stores, demonstrating technology that was virtually unknown to the average European. Nazi Germany had arrived on the world stage, and they wanted everyone to know it.

Owens' victories came over the span of a week. On August 3, he won the 100 meter dash. The next day, he won the long jump competition. On the 5th, he won the 200 meter dash. Finally, as part of the 4-man 100 meter relay, he won his last gold medal on August 9th. Despite urban legends to the contrary, the crowd cheered Owens and he was asked for his autograph many, many times over the course of the 15-day Games.

There has always been some controversy over Adolf Hitler's refusal to shake Owens' hand during the awarding of his first medal. As is so often the case, there is much more to the story. On the first day of the Games, Hitler only shook hands with the Germans who won medals and then left the stadium. The Olympic Committee was upset by this and gave Hitler two options: either shake everyone's hand, or no one's. Hitler decided to skip the rest of the medal presentations. Though Owens was not singled out to be snubbed, it no doubt rankled the Nazis to see an American born in Alabama and raised in Ohio best their "Aryan" superman. However, Owens later claimed that Hitler waved at him from his seat and that he waved back.

Jesse Owens returned to a segregated America in which he was a second-class citizen. A ticker-tape parade was held in New York for him, after which there was a dinner held in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria. Despite these honors, the hotel required him to use the building's freight elevator because black Americans were not allowed to ride with white passengers.

Owens did not enjoy the lasting fame and financial success that so many athletes enjoy today. He ran in various promotional races and even worked as a disc jockey for a time before starting a career in public relations. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990. He was not able to enjoy this last award, however; lung cancer had claimed his life in 1980.

Jesse Owens finally received the recognition he deserved as a world-class athlete. But what's more, he represented his nation at a competition filled with tension and racial overtones and proved to the world that the crooked science of racial superiority should have no place in the modern world.

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