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“The Buckeye Bullet”: Jesse Owens cemented his legacy in the 1936 Olympics

In the hot political climate of 1936 Berlin, Owens becomes the first American to win four gold medals in one Olympics

1936 Olympic Long Jump Medals Ceremony
Jesse Owens (highest tier, saluting) on the podium for the long jump medals ceremony at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Jesse Owens had outstanding performances as a schoolboy and, later, as a track star at Ohio State. But what we remember him for, what has etched his name permanently in our minds, happened 85 years ago — at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. We remember Jesse Owens standing up to Hitler and, with his four gold medals, exposing as nonsense the Nazi doctrine of Aryan supremacy.

Despite the legend, most of us probably don’t know what really happened at those games. We think of the heroic Owens going alone, a solitary Black face amidst a sea of Nazi flags and Hitler salutes. But he wasn’t alone.

The U.S. track and field contingent was a large one, as it always is. (Think back on opening ceremonies that you’ve seen and the large number of American athletes.) And, Owens had seventeen African American teammates in the track and field events, and collectively they brought back a total of 14 medals. So, he wasn’t alone, but one certainly couldn’t consider Berlin in 1936 a friendly environment for people of color.

The legend goes that, upon winning his first gold, Owens was snubbed by Hitler, who refused to shake his hand. Not true, said Owens. Apparently, the snub occurred previously with another Black athlete.

Afterward, Hitler was reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee, who told him that he had to shake hands with all winners — or with none. Always mindful of how things looked and wanting desperately for the games to be a success, Hitler absented himself from the medals podium thereafter. Owens says that Hitler acknowledged him with a nod and quick salute from his seat in the stands.

James Cleveland (‘Jesse’) Owens, American athlete - 1936 Olympic Summer Games in
Owens wins the 100-meter dash at the 1936 Berlin games
Photo by Lothar Ruebelt / ullstein bild via Getty Images

During the course of the games, Owens became the first American Olympian to win four gold medals; it was a feat not equaled until the Los Angeles games in 1984 when Carl Lewis also won four. In his three individual events, Owens set new Olympic records in all three and tied the world mark in the 100-meter dash, with a time of 10.3 seconds. His time in the 200 was 20.7 seconds, and his long jump was 26 feet, 5 1/4 inches.

Owens’s fourth gold medal came in the 400-meter relay. The four Americans ran the race in 39.8 seconds, setting another world record. In addition to Owens, the relay team consisted of white runners Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff and African American Ralph Metcalfe.

Metcalfe finished second to Owens in the 100-meter (see photo above) and had, in fact, also taken the silver medal in the 1932 games. The Marquette University speedster enjoyed “the world’s fastest human” label for a couple of years before it became clear that Owens was faster. After his running days were behind him, Metcalfe got a master’s degree from Southern Cal and then returned to Chicago, where he became involved in government and politics. From 1971 until his death in 1978, Congressman Metcalfe represented Chicago in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Jesse Owens Poses With Gold Medals
Some twenty years after his Olympic heroics, Jesse Owens proudly displays his four gold medals
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And Jesse Owens? After those incredible Olympics, he was certainly well-known and tried to capitalize on his name recognition. However, things then weren’t as well defined — or as lucrative — as they now can be for sports figures at the height of their fame. Owens did some endorsements, some exhibitions, some talks, but never really made a lot of money. He returned to OSU a couple of times, to try to complete his education, but never did earn his degree.

Owens, however, became a celebrated public figure, initially as a motivational speaker, stressing how one could meet one’s goals through dedication and hard work, and later becoming more outspoken as he tackled controversial topics in the area of social justice and civil rights. Owens died in Tucson, Arizona on March 31, 1980. He left a legacy unmatched among Ohio State athletes, and whether we remember “The Buckeye Bullet” or not, we remember Jesse Owens.