In the summer of 1936, Nazi Germany was swept up in a sports culture high. The hooked cross of Hitler's Nazis, the swastika, was flying everywhere, with Berlin the host city for the Olympic Games. The storm troopers, in their severe black uniforms, were goose-stepping a little higher on the Berlin streets and in the stadium, perhaps to impress the 5,000 visiting athletes, perhaps to catch the Fuhrer's eye.
Pumped way up in fact, was Hitler's trumpeted theory of a German master race. Only two months before, in Madison Square Garden, Max Schmeling, an Aryan and good, loyal, Deutschlander, had knocked out Joe Louis in 12 rounds. They flew him back on the Hindenburg and aired blow-by-blow recordings of the fight for weeks.
To signal the beginning of the Games, a sinewy blond German youth, his hair bordering on platinum, loped into the stadium with torch to light the Olympic flame. Here was a handpicked symbol of Aryan or German supremacy.
Into this scene loped another young man, black. He was the son of an Alabama cotton picker, and picked cotton himself as a boy. Within a week, Jesse Owens consigned Hitler's master race theory to the Berlin city dump, drove the Fuhrer himself slinking out of the Olympic stadium in deep dismay, and gave the world its most magnificent week in sports history.
Jesse Owens won the 100 meters, the 200 meters and the broad jump and gave the United States' 400-meter relay team a big 15-meter lead with his leadoff leg. He broke three world records and added a new Olympic record.
He died yesterday of lung cancer, at 66. Let's say this about Jesse Owens: He wouldn't have lost that final contest if they had put a tape across the finish line.
Jesse Owens' fame may best be told, perhaps, by the old word-association game: mention baseball, and, quick, you get Babe Ruth. Boxing? Dempsey, of course. Golf, it'll be Jones or Hagen. Tennis, Tildon. Horse racing, Man o'War. Football, Grange. Olympics -- it is knee-jerk -- it has to be Jesse Owens when the call is for instant recall.
The story that Hitler snubbed him after Owens won the 100 meter in record time on the opening day is true. Earlier in the day, the jubilant Fuhrer summoned two Germans who finished one-two in the shot put to his ceremonial box for special congratulations. But when Owens won the 100 meters, Hitler suddenly decied he would not make a habit of publicly congratulating winners, and bugged out of his private box.
Hitlers aides said that there was a threat of rain and that the Fuhrer wanted to beat the showers. But when there was another German winner later in the day, Hitler received him, sneakily, under the stands.
Two days later, American writers were calling it Black Tuesday for the Nazis, so many events won by the athletes the Germans had been calling "America's Black auxiliaries." On that day, Owens gave perhaps his greatest performace. After winning the 200 meters, he strolled over to the broad-jumping pit for his next qualifying event. That was supposed to be no great challenge for Owens, the only man who ever leaped 26 feet.
It would have been trauma, for a less-confident chap than Owens. The red flag went up and Owens was charged with a jump when he merely strolled down the broad-jump path to measure the distance. He still was wearing his jersey pullover while examining the condition of the runway.
When Owens did get off a jump, the German officials ruled he had over-stepped the takeoff, and he was left with only third and final try at qualifying. This time Owens took off a full foot before the takeoff mark and soared to a world record leap of 26 feet, 5 15/16 inches.
He had a hard time with the German officials earlier, in the 100-meter semifinal. He won his heat but they said he couldn't be credited with his world-record time of 10.2 because of a following wind. A series of photos by American cameramen showed all flags limp during the race.
As an Ohio State sophomore the year before, Owens had given warning that he would be the man to beat in his Olympics events. He set records in the 220-yard hurdles and 200 meters and equaled the broad-jump mark in the Western Conference track meet.
After Berlin, Owens found himself with heaps of Olympic glory and little cash with which to operate. Instant offers of big honorariums turned out to be mostly the phony attempts of pseudo-celebrities to get their own names in the paper.
As a consequence, Owens submitted to some indignities to support his familiy. He donned his Olympic trunks and raced against anything that could run, horses, dogs, other beasts and humans (who had a head start), for promoters trying to make a buck for themselves as well.
In later years America did seem to recognize a debt to Owens. The U.S. Olympic Committee hired him for public relations, and he was on the banquet circuit. His biggest score since the Olympics happened only in the months before he died when he was a frequent face on national television, holding up that card and saying you can't leave home without it. The pay for that was good, and people liked it. World records once held by Jesse Owens: 60 meters, Indoors: 6.4 seconds 100 Yards: 9.4. 100 Meters: 10.2. 220 Yards: 20.3. 200 Meters: 20.3. 200-Meter Hurdles: 22.6. 220-Yard Hurdles: 22.6. Broad Jump: 26 feet, 8 1/4 inches. 400-Meter Relay: 39.8.