Eighty years after Jesse Owens won four medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, his daughter says Germany’s Nazi leader Adolf Hitler refused to shake her father’s hand.
The controversial Berlin Olympics opened on August 1, 1936 to much fanfare, with the Reich’s chancellor, Hitler, hoping to showcase the best of the Aryan race, and the hosts planning to dominate the podium across the 19 different sporting events.
But Owens ruined Hitler’s plans, as the black American sprinter won gold in the 100-meter, 200-meter, 4×100-meter relay and long jump, over six magical days at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
His achievements made a mockery of the Nazi ideology of Aryan supremacy and, according to sporting folklore, Hitler refused to shake his hand, despite the American’s historic display.
Owens died of lung cancer, aged 66, in 1980, but his daughter, Marlene Owens Rankin, says as far as she is concerned, her father never shook Hitler’s hand.
Rankin said her father always gave one answer when asked whether he was congratulated by Hitler in Berlin, three years before the start of World War II, which ended with the Nazi leader’s suicide in the ruins of Berlin in May 1945.
“He always said, ‘I didn’t go to the Berlin Olympics to shake Hitler’s hand,'” the 77-year-old daughter told magazine Sport Bild.
“‘I went there to run. And that’s exactly what I did. ‘I’m here today and where Hitler is, I do not know.’ Because of that, I don’t think he shook his hand.”
However, other sources deny that Hitler deliberately snubbed Owens. On the first day of the Olympics, Hitler only shook hands with the German victors and then left the stadium long before Owens actually competed. Committee officials had insisted that Hitler either shake hands with every medalist or with none at all. Hitler opted for the latter and took no further part in the games.
Nevertheless, Hitler was upset at Owens’s victories. Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, wrote in his memoirs that Hitler “was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.”
Jesse Owens is quoted by media sources at the time as saying, “Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left, I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the ‘man of the hour’ in another country.”
Owens’ daughter first visited Berlin in 1984, when the road next to the iconic stadium was renamed Jesse Owens Allee in tribute to her father.
In his autobiography, Owens said Hitler did nothing more than raise his hand in acknowledgement, when the pair were in the same room during the Berlin games.
“That’s in my favorite book about him,” said Rankin. “I don’t know for sure if that happened, but my father was not the kind to make stories up. If he said that, then I think it’s what happened.”
“Race,” the biographical sports drama based on Jesse Owens’ story, and directed by Stephen Hopkins, hit the screens in Germany on Thursday in time for the 80th anniversary of his achievements.
There is also an exhibition of rarely seen photographs from the 1936 games currently on show at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
The imposing arena, which was built for the 1936 games, held 100,000 for the opening ceremony, with nearly 4,000 athletes from 49 nations taking part.
But there was no escaping the racist undertone of the 16-day spectacle in anti-Semitic Germany, with only one Jew, Helene Mayer, allowed to compete for the German team, while several countries boycotted the games.
But it is Owens’s legacy that has echoed through the years in Berlin.
Sprint star Usain Bolt set the current 100-meter and 200-meter world records on the famous blue track, when the 2009 world athletics championships were held in Germany’s capital, and he referred directly to Owens.
Both sprinters were 22 when they made history in Berlin — 73 years apart.
“Jesse made history here, so I’m going to try to do the same,” Bolt said in Berlin in 2009, before winning the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4×100 meter world gold medals.
Bolt’s times of 9.58 seconds for the 100-meter and 19.19 seconds for the 200-meter have never been bettered.