Wednesday 12 March 2014

Did Hitler Snub the Buckeye Bullet?

"I saw the finish line and knew that 10 seconds would climax the work of 8 years."
(Jesse Owens)

Hitler at Berlin Olympics 1936 courtesy

Reporters claimed that Jesse Owens, after winning the 100 metre dash at the Berlin Olympics, was snubbed by Adolf Hitler who refused to shake the gold medallist's hand.  However, Jesse wrote in his 1970 biography that Hitler did not snub him.  In fact, when Owens passed Hitler's box at one point, the fuhrer waved to him and he waved back. According to the runner:  "Hitler didn't snub me -- it was FDR who snubbed me.  He didn't even send me a telegram."

James Cleveland Owens, the youngest of 10 children, was the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave.  He was born and raised in Oakville, Alabama where he learned to pick cotton at an early age.  At 9 years old, Jesse moved north with his family to Cleveland,Ohio, along with 1.5 million other blacks as part of the Great Migration.  Jesse's new teacher asked him his name and he said "J.C." with a Southern drawl which she mistook for Jesse.  The name stuck.

Jesse's family remained dirt poor and he was forced to find a part time job after school either delivering groceries, loading freight cars or repairing shoes.  Normally such a job would have prevented Jesse from doing after school activities but a track coach at his junior high saw such promise in him he offered to work with him before school.  By high school, Jesse could run the 100 yard dash in 9.4 seconds.  By the year 1936, he was an NCAA champion eight times, earning him the nickname "The Buckeye Bullet".

Jesse Owens circa 1935 courtey

Although Jesse had proven his worth as an athlete, he still had to abide by the Jim Crow laws of the United States.  At Ohio State University, he lived off campus with other blacks.  On the road with the track team, he ordered carry out at whites-only restaurants and stayed at blacks-only hotels.  Nothing would stop him, though, from attending the Olympic games in Germany.

Jesse arrived in Berlin in the summer of 1936 ready to set records.  After 12 qualifying heats, the Buckeye Bullet posted the fastest time at 10.3 seconds.  In the quarter-final race, he bested his time at 10.4 seconds. In the semi-final race, Owens blazed down the track, making it look like the other runners were standing still, posting a 10.4 second clocking.  The question remained: Could he repeat in the final?

Leni Riefenstahl had her cameras in place on race day.  Spectators filled the stands.  Flags representing the 49 countries competing flew above the stadium.  Officials clad in white suits sat ready at the finish line.  The gun exploded and the racers blazed down the track.  The race quickly became a competition between Owens and his American teammate Ralph Metcalfe.  The Guardian reported that Jesse made running looked effortless:  "He seemed to float along the track like water".  Jesse broke the tape at the finish line, clocking a 10.3, with Ralph Metcalfe at his heals in second and Tinus Osendarp of the Netherlands in third.  The crowd thundered their applause.

But Jesse's work in Berlin was not done.  The following day he won the long jump with a 27 foot 5 inch jump.  Two days after the 100 metre victory, Jesse ran the 200 metres and captured gold again, this time in 20.7 seconds.  And six days after his original race, Jesse, along with his three teammates, won the 4 by 100 metre relay. The Buckeye Bullet stood no less than four times on the podium and listened to "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Olympic stadium.  While the Germans would receive the most medals in Berlin, it would be the Americans that would win the most medals at the track.

Despite not receiving Hitler's handshake, Jesse was swarmed by German fans in the streets of Berlin.  Upon returning to America, a ticker tape parade was held in New York City in the athlete's honour.  Afterwards, Jesse was invited to the Waldorf-Astoria for a party.  While in Germany the Jews were restricted as to where they could go and what they could do, in America it was the blacks.  Owens had to ride the hotel freight elevator to get to his own party.

Ticker tape parade in N.Y.C. circa 1936 courtesy

Jesse soon turned pro after the Olympics.  However, he could not find much work and was forced to race against horses and greyhounds in a circus-like environment.  Endorsements were not offered to black athletes at the time.  But as one reporter pointed out, "adversity made him shine".  Jesse would not give up. Finally, in the 1950's, he found a more satisfying job as a public speaker, working for such firms as the Ford Motor Company.

Jesse married and had three daughters.  His pack-a-day cigarette smoking habit led to lung cancer.  He passed away at the age of 66 in 1980.

Jesse Owens circa 1950's holding his four gold medals courtesy

Note:  For more information about Jesse Owens, read Triumph:  The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics by Jeremy Schapp.

For more information on The Great Migration read my post "The Warmth of Other Suns" at

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