05 August 2021 Blogs, Academic, Public, Faculty, Librarian, Student/Researcher

The Summer Olympics: Remembering Jesse Owens

How students can develop a deeper understanding of world and US history by exploring the phenomenal athlete of the 1936 games

For German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, the 1936 Summer Olympic Games hosted in Berlin were an opportunity to promote his government and ideals of racial supremacy. What the Nazi leader didn’t anticipate was the phenomenal achievement of African American track-and-field athlete, Jesse Owens. That summer, Owens won four gold medals: 100 meters, long jump, 200 meters, and 4 × 100-meter relay, and was the most successful athlete at the games.

The historical and cultural significance of this event is complicated. Owens’ victory is not just a story of one man rising above poverty, racism and chronic pain (resulting from a college accident) to flout Hitler’s politics on an international stage and attain glory for the U.S. Olympic team.  Owen’s feats and his life before and after Berlin tell a much larger story.

By searching “Jesse Owens” in ProQuest One Academic — or taking a shortcut by using ProQuest’s curated topics — students can piece together a variety of content types — including video, newspapers and dissertations to go beyond the rote recitation of Owen’s athleticism and engage them in ways that provide deeper understanding of topics like the rise of a fascist superpower, hypocrisy and racism in the U.S., and the role of media in shaping past and present perceptions.

Feel the moment with video

Grainy black-and-white newsreel footage of the 1936 Olympic Games offers a visceral glimpse into another time1. Though soundless, the images speak volumes: the pomp and pageantry of the opening parade are dominated by swastikas and Nazi salutes, three years before the outbreak of World War II.

From a contemporary vantage point, the clip is tainted by knowledge of the horrors now associated with these symbols — we know what they foretell. But what was it like for viewers who were watching then? Was it easy to dismiss the dangerous, hate-filled philosophies of the Nazi Party as empty rhetoric? How were the dramatic emblems and gestures that represented the Party perceived by American onlookers of the time? Did those watching this footage experience a sense of foreboding?

Juxtaposed with these images is the grinning, glowing face of the Games’ star athlete, Jesse Owens. Seeing him in motion, Owens appears superhuman, not only because of his extraordinary speed and agility but because he’s the star of this iconic moment: the dark-skinned athlete accepting a gold medal in defiance of an inhospitable host who would become one of the world’s most vile villains. Owens’ victory signifies the triumph of good over evil.

At the same time, the footage reveals Owens to be an ordinary human — a flesh and blood person whose victory was also personal. Seeing the man perform these feats also provokes questions about who he was, how he got there, and what happened to him afterward.

Understand the whole person with news clippings

After Owens died from cancer in 1980, The New York Times published a retrospective including details about his background, his Olympic experience, and its impact on the rest of his life2. Such an overview provides valuable information for deeper understanding of Owens as a person, as well as the racial climate in the U.S. during his lifetime.

According to the article, Owens was born in 1913, the child of sharecroppers and the grandchild of formerly enslaved Africans. He ran his first race at the age of 13 and started setting records as a student athlete while attending Ohio State University.

Following his performance at the 1936 Summer Games, Owens was often asked about Hitler’s snub (the chancellor didn’t congratulate any of the Black American winners), and was quoted as saying, "It was all right with me. I didn't go to Berlin to shake hands with him, anyway. All I know is that I'm here now, and Hitler isn't.”

Owens also added, "When I came back to my native country, and I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. Now what's the difference?" He? elaborated, “Having returned from Berlin, he received no telephone call from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was not asked to visit the White House.”

Because of racial discrimination, job opportunities were scarce for Owens. He worked as playground janitor and supplemented his income racing amateurs as well as motor vehicles and animals. "Sure, it bothered me," he said later. "But at least it was an honest living. I had to eat."

Decades passed before Owens’ achievements were formally recognized by the U.S. government, under the Ford and Carter administrations. He went on to have a stint touring with the Harlem Globetrotters and eventually became a celebrated motivational speaker.

Learn to think like a scholar with dissertations

How do we make sense of the conflict between the image of Owens as an American hero who triumphed over Hitler at the 1936 Olympics and the reality of his struggles with racism in the U.S.?

Scholar Pamela Laucella offers a compelling explanation for this hypocrisy in her 2004 dissertation “An Analysis of Mainstream, Black, and Communist Press Coverage of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games”3. Laucella’s research focused on comparing articles from different newspapers “to elucidate the interplay between journalists, media content, and 1930s culture.” Her study delved into “the potency of language and discourse in influencing readers’ perceptions of events and individuals,” specifically, how writers’ “words, phrases, and sentences within their narratives influenced the pictures individuals created about the Berlin Olympic Games and Jesse Owens.”

Her findings confirm that the mainstream press had the most profound impact on public perceptions. These perceptions, in turn, contributed to — or at least did not oppose — social norms regarding racism.

Laucella wrote that while all the news outlets she researched highlighted Owens’ skills and “gracious deportment,” “the mainstream writers’ patriotic, evasive, descriptive, and stylistic approaches focused on surrounding scenes, racial stereotypes, and alleged variances between the races.”

She continued, “While the mainstream writers failed to change or challenge the status quo, they still praised Owens’ athletic prowess and achievements, thereby reinforcing and sustaining the racial opinions and prejudices of American society during the 1930s.”

In her conclusion, Laucella posed a series of questions worthy of deeper consideration and discussion. For example, she wondered, had Owens been a more vehement advocate of civil rights, would Americans in 1936 have responded less enthusiastically to his victories? Or would his athletic achievements have been as celebrated if the Olympic Games were held someplace other than Germany?

To support further examination of these and related topics, check out the new curated bibliography on Jesse Owens available from ProQuest One Academic.

Interested in learning more about ProQuest One Academic, the world’s largest curated collection of essential content, all in one place – video, news, journals, ebooks, dissertations and more? Click here.

Notes (all resources available from ProQuest One Academic):

    1. August 10, 1936, in Universal Newsreels, Release 483. (1936, Aug 10). [Video/DVD].
    2. By, F. L. (1980, Apr 01). Jesse Owens Dies of Cancer at 66; Hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympics: Jesse Owens Dies of Lung Cancer at 66 No Response to Drugs Father Was a Sharecropper 10 Blacks on Team Celebrated as a Speaker. New York Times (1923-Current File).
    3. Laucella, P. C. (2004). An analysis of mainstream, black, and Communist press coverage of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. (305167442).