Semi-OT: Berlin, this day in 1936

Submitted by stephenrjking on August 3rd, 2012 at 11:54 PM

Today (barely) in 1936 Jesse Owens won the first of his four gold medals under the nose of 20th century supervillain Adolf Hitler.

Today athletes talk about proving themselves, or showing their "doubters" what they're made of. There's a lot of empty pride, a lot of commercialism, and a lot of media. It's the nature of sport today.

But Jesse Owens genuinely proved something in Berlin. In the most dramatic possible context. His was one of the few moments in sports that genuinely exceeded the boundaries of the playing field to impact the entire world. Along with Eric Liddell (for personal reasons that one may discern by reading my signature) his accomplishments are the most significant to me in Olympic history.

This is only semi-OT, because Owens achieved his greatest heights in purely athletics terms at Ferry Field in 1935.  As a Michigan fan, a sports fan, and an American, I am proud that one of the few memorials to any athlete on Michigan's athletic campus is the plaque honoring Owens at Ferry. As Rothstein says:

"Ferry Field still stands. Outside the track a plaque commemorates Owens' record-shattering day. It is, perhaps, the ultimate compliment in college sports that a University of Michigan athletic facility continues to honor the achievements of an Ohio State Buckeye."

Some things are more important than rivalry. 



August 4th, 2012 at 12:52 AM ^

I have been lucky enough that a good friend of mine (who was a member of Bo's first rose bowl team who only played special teams) has had a VIP tailgate stop right between yost and the track field, we set up our tailgate right at the brick corner with the plaque, an awesome honor for a buckeye and great American

M Fanfare

August 4th, 2012 at 12:02 AM ^

Also, Owens' 4th gold medal came at the expense of U of M runner Sam Stoller. Stoller was a member of the 4x400 meter relay team, along with Marty Glickman, Frank Wykoff, and Foy Draper. On the eve of the relay, the coach, possibly under pressure from future IOC president Avery Brundage and other members of the USOC, pulled Stoller and Glickman off the relay team because they were Jewish, replacing them with Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. The unstated but widely rumored reason was that the US didn't want to annoy Hitler by having two Jews help the US to another track victory. With Stoller and Glickman sidelined, the US relay team shattered the world record and took home the gold, but left the two excluded runners very bitter.

Zone Left

August 4th, 2012 at 12:09 AM ^

"In his final football game (against Ohio State), Harmon led the Wolverines to a 40–0 victory, scoring three rushing touchdowns, two passing touchdowns, four extra points, intercepting three passes, and punting three times for an average of 50 yards. In an unprecedented display of sportsmanship and appreciation, the Ohio State fans in Columbus gave Harmon a standing ovation at game's end. No Wolverine player had been so honored, before or since."

We used to be able to collectively appreciate the amazing accomplishments of our opponents. It's a shame we usually struggle with that today.

Tom Harmon was awesome.

Horace Prettyman

August 4th, 2012 at 12:40 AM ^

This lady I work with had a grandfather who competed in the 1936 olympic games. He was part of the team that won the gold in 8-man rowing. Hitler himself placed the gold medal around his neck.

I can only imagine the types of bar bets he won with the story of the day he won a gold medal at the Olympics and met Hitler.


August 4th, 2012 at 1:02 AM ^

wanted to point out to anyone who didnt see the willis ward documentary black and blue, that Ward beat Owens in march 1935 in 2 of 3 races they both competed in at a meet in ann arbor.  I think Ward quit competing in the summer of 1935, because of what happened with the Georgia Tech debacle.  Would've been cool to see what would have happened in the 36 olympics if ward went for it.


August 4th, 2012 at 9:42 AM ^

for those who haven't.  Ward was a star at Michigan and kept off the field during Michigan's game with Georgia Tech as part of a "gentlemen's" agreement to keep GT from backing out of their scheduled game.  GT, along with other southern schools, would not play against a team with black players.  Ward was not only kept off the field but wasn't allowed even to sit in the stadium.  Even though he had beat Owens in what must have been a thrilling collegiate rivalry, he lost heart after that experience and underperformed in the Olympic trials, [later?] saying he didn't want to go through the same humiliation again.  The irony is that Owens was allowed to compete and that the Jewish runners were kept off-- not by Hitler, but by the Americans, for much the same reason that Ward was kept off the football field.


August 4th, 2012 at 1:15 AM ^

Columbus - Ohio State University: Celebration for a Champion
Celebration for a Champion, by sculptor Curtis Patterson, was dedicated in Jesse Owens Plaza, at the north entrance to Ohio Stadium, on May 4, 1984. The abstract sculpture commemorates Jesse Owens' track and field accomplishments, both at the Olympics and at Ohio State. The four pyramid points represent his 1936 Olympic gold medals and the four world records he broke in 1935 at a Big Ten Meet. On the north side of the work, the triangular piece is symbolic of a hurdle. On the west side, the lattice represents his struggle to success. The sculpture cost $100,000 and was funded through a 1.4 million dollar capital improvements bill for the Stadium.


August 4th, 2012 at 1:57 AM ^

I was watching the NBC coverage of the Olympics and it is a bit...focused...and there was discussion of Phelps in context of greatness as an Olympian.

What was missing from that discussion was the context of the Olympic outcomes. Owens achieved his feats amid an environment of hatred and in a context where many hoped he would fail. Owens overcame the "superior race" and changed, if only for a brief period, how Americans viewed each other and the world.

Michael Phelps is  a great athlete but he won't ever have had that impact.


August 4th, 2012 at 9:15 AM ^

This is probably an inappropriate thread-jack, but Michael Phelps is way overrated with all the "greatest Olympian" talk. Yeah, he has the most medals, but that is a function of his sport being one that awards so many. He does two strokes, at several different distances, and some relays, so he has more opportunities than almost any other athlete. 

In other sports, there are far fewer, sometimes only one, opportunity to win Gold. To me, people who maintain dominance over multiple Olympics are much more impressive than someone who won a lot in just 3 separate games.


August 4th, 2012 at 9:50 AM ^

1st paragraph good

2nd not so much; you completely contradict your point in saying people who win gold over multiple Olympics deserve respect....which is exactly what Phelps has done. 

The dude has 21 medals and 17 of them are gold with 2 of the silvers coming this year and 2 bronzes when he was 15.  Thats an 80% Gold medal rate and those have came across 3 Olympics or 12 years.  The guy has dominated his sport like few athletes have and did it across a decade. 

Simply put if he hadnt taken it "easy" for this Olympics we would not be hearing about Ryan Lochte.    


August 4th, 2012 at 2:48 PM ^

It's true that swimmers have more opportunities to win medals than athletes in other disciplines, but in order to do that, they have to go through a brutal schedule.  When Phelps competes for all those medals, he's swimming multiple times a day for a week against competitiors who've had some days off.   Each one of his Olympics - 2004, 2008 and 2012 - by itself is a legendary performance.  To win three golds in one Olympics (which he's done now) by itself makes you a legend - and this is actually a step down from what he did the two previous times.

To compare him to athletes in other sports is obviously apples and oranges, but he's certainly the greatest swimmer of all time, by a good margin.  There aren't many athletes in any sport who are so clearly superior to everyone else.




August 4th, 2012 at 2:59 PM ^

Owens achieved his feats amid an environment of hatred and in a context where many hoped he would fail.

This is true, but sadly, that environment of hatred was in the United States.  In Germany he didn't face any segregation.  There's been a lot of revisionism of the Jesse Owens story to make it more palatable for modern American audiences.  The true story is hard for a lot of us to swallow.





August 4th, 2012 at 8:04 PM ^

Phelps has a mathematical claim to the title "Greatest Olympian of All Time."  Owens has a social and political claim to the title.  Then again, how many people outside of the US have the same affinity or appreciation for Owens that we do in the US?  


August 4th, 2012 at 2:39 AM ^

...of Buckonomics?  Anything that happened before 1950 doesn't really count towards anything. 

Sorry Jesse Owens, but you ran during [enter old date here] when things were far less competitive and [enter other stupid excuse].  You never had a chance to run against [enter awesome runner from Michigan] to prove your worth.  For that, I award you no points and have God have mercy on your soul.

Jesse Owens can eat a bag of dicks


August 4th, 2012 at 5:01 AM ^

What really would have been a FU is if those games were held in the United States instead of Berlin and he won those medals. The US had racial laws that were even harsher than Germanys. This is just wartime propaganda that still has legs because of the civil rights movement.


Waiting on racism accusations in 5...4..3.....


August 4th, 2012 at 10:33 AM ^

Have you ever heard of the Nuremberg Laws? The Civil Service law? Jim Crow was an awful, awful set of laws. There is no doubt abut that. But it wasn't worse than what the Nazis did to the Jews in the thirties. Jew couldn't vote, ride "Aryan" trains, work in Aryan industries, work in Aryan was Jim Crow German-style. Then, of course, we mustn't forget what this led to: Kristallnacht, Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmo, Majdanek, Belzec, Zyklon B, Babi Yar, and on and on the deaths went until 6 millionsJews disappeared forever from this earth. All this in a 7 year time span.

Nothing like the Holocaust has ever been seen. By that I don't mean the act of mass murder. We have seen that in many places. But the industrialization of death. The warping of normally admirable  characteristics  of discipline and ingenuity, which helped make Germany a preeminent nation in culture and economically, to bring alive this Dantean vision of Hell.

snarling wolverine

August 4th, 2012 at 12:26 PM ^

One of the less-heartwarming aspects of the Owens story is that he said he experienced less racism in Nazi Germany than he did in the United States.  FDR refused to speak to him, and when a reception was held in his honor in a New York hotel, he wasn't allowed to take the elevator up - it was whites-only.   



August 4th, 2012 at 7:53 PM ^

as bad. Jews were considerd a different race by the Nazis. Insane I know, but the Jews were to the Nazis what blacks were to Southerners.  Look up the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 and the Civil Service Law of 1933. Jews were legally removed from German society just like blacks were in the South.It then progressed to 

BrayBray also makes the egregious error of comparing two separate legal atrocities. I have no use for that. People in both countries suffered. Why even attempt to  make a qualitative comparison?


August 4th, 2012 at 10:55 AM ^

When I was in elementary school in Detroit in the 50s, Jesse Owens came and spoke to my class. I guess that he must have been friends with one of the teachers.

I was so young I didn't really understand what he'd accomplished; what I remember is that he was soft-spoken and very humble.

But here was a man who wasn't too self-important to come and visit a group of little kids at an elementary school in Detroit.

It's interesting that he never had a scholarship to OSU, and had to work part time even though he was an Olympic athlete. 

One thing that struck me is that he said that Hitler didn't snub him, FDR did.


August 4th, 2012 at 11:42 AM ^

My Great-Uncle (as a member of the Michigan team) was competing against Owens in this meet. It was the BIG championship meet and Owens broke 4 world records in under 45 minutes real time. That same day my Grandfather won the Michigan high school state championship in the two-mile. My Grandpa went on to run for Michigan and was teammates w Don Canham.

My Great-Great-Grandpa went to the BIG meet and my GG Grandma went to the state meet. They each sent a telegram to each other saying, "you won't believe what happened"

/cool story bro

Blue Ridge

August 4th, 2012 at 6:27 PM ^

is amazing.  His form was incredible.

Speaking of things historical, today is the 100th birthday of Raul Wallenberg, Michigan graduate and superhero of the Second World War.


August 4th, 2012 at 7:55 PM ^

This is emanates not from American chauvinism, but from an appreciation of the historical significance of Owens peacefully destroying the Aryan racial myth. The Russians would also do so, but with a much, much, much, greater level of violence.