Jessie Owens at the Olympic Games in Germany 1936
At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, African American track star Jesse Owens wins his fourth gold medal of the Games in the 4×100-meter relay. His relay team set a new world record of 39.8 seconds, which held for 20 years. In their strong showing in track-and-field events at the XIth Olympiad, Jesse Owens and other African American athletes struck a propaganda blow against Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, who planned to use the Berlin Games as a showcase of supposed Aryan superiority.
Born the son of Alabama sharecroppers in 1913, Owens emerged as a major track talent while attending high school in Cleveland, Ohio. Later, at Ohio State University, he demonstrated himself to be one of the greatest athletes in the world. In a single day of competition–May 25, 1935–Owens broke the world records for the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles, and the running broad jump, and equaled the world record for the 100-yard dash. The next summer, Owens and 311 other American athletes, including 17 African Americans, traveled to Nazi Germany to represent the United States at the XIth Olympiad.
With his four gold medals, Jesse Owens was the star of the Berlin Olympics. He equaled the world record (10.3 seconds) in the 100-meter race and broke the world records in the 200-meter race (20.7 seconds) and in the broad jump (26 feet 5 3/8 inches). He was enthusiastically applauded by the largely German crowd and developed a friendship with German long jumper and silver medalist Luz Long. However, he and other African American Olympians were demeaned by a Nazi newspaper that wrote of them as the “black auxiliaries” of the American team.
Although only 23, Jesse Owens retired from amateur competition shortly after the Berlin Olympics in order to capitalize on his fame. This effectively brought his athletic career to an end. He later engaged in boys’-guidance activities, made goodwill visits to Asia for the U.S. Department of State, and served as secretary of the Illinois State Athletic Commission. He died in 1980.