1936 Fifty Years Ago

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When the Olympic Games opened in Berlin, Adolf Hitler enthroned himself in the guest of honor’s prominent stand in the track and field stadium. From there he expected to witness his theory of Aryan supremacy confirmed. For the first few events on August 2, Nordic youth did win, and they were duly led to Hitler’s stand, where he shook their hands. But then two Americans, Cornelius Johnson and David Albritton, took first and second places in the high jump. They were both blacks, and, according to Hitler, members of an inferior race. In a sudden commotion, the F’fchrer abruptly left the stadium; no one doubted he did so to avoid honoring the black men. Notified by the Olympic Committee that he must congratulate all or none, Hitler seemingly chose the latter—but continued to congratulate Germans in private, while hoping the Aryans would fare better in the following events.

The next day a black man named Jesse Owens dug his toe-hole at the starting line for the 100-meter dash. The gun went off, and 10.3 seemingly effortless seconds later he crossed the finish line, having tied the Olympic record. The crowd went mad. On August 4 Owens soared 8.06 meters in the long jump, defeating Germany’s great hope, Lutz Long, and setting an Olympic record. His name reverberated across the stadium as thousands took up the cry: “Jazeee-ooh-wenz! Jaz-eee-ooh-wenz!” The following day he easily won the 200-meter dash in 20.7 seconds, establishing yet another Olympic record. His fans cheered deliriously. On August 9 he ran in the 4 X 100-meter relay, leading his team to a world-record time of 39.8 seconds.

Never before had an athlete won four medals in a single Olympics. Owens was named Athlete of the Games and toasted around the globe. And yet because of the time and place, Owens’s victories and those of the other black athletes had a special significance. There on German soil, for the entire world to see, they had discredited Hitler’s menacing theory of Aryan supremacy.

•August 7: The United States declares that it will not intervene in the Spanish Civil War, indicating to Hitler and Mussolini that we are not prepared to oppose fascism abroad.