Jesse, Adolf, and Franklin

American Jesse Owens won three gold medals in three days at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. You probably think you know what happened next, but you don’t.

“Adolf Hitler famously refused to shake Owens’ hand, not wanting the humiliation of acknowledging a Black athlete’s brilliance, or so the story goes. But the truth is that, after the first day of competition, Hitler didn’t shake any athlete’s hand because the head of the International Olympic Committee told him he must congratulate all gold medalists or none at all. Sure, the führer wasn’t keen on photo ops with Black or Jewish athletes, but he simply chose to steer clear of the stadium altogether. So Owens was never personally snubbed by Hitler, but his story is still defined by systematic racism — not in Nazi Germany, but in the United States.

After the Olympics, in which 18 African-American athletes competed with record-breaking success, only white athletes were invited to meet President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House. It was an election year, and FDR “did not want to be perceived as being soft on the negro issue,” says Harry Edwards, a sociologist and campaigner for Black participation in professional sports. The most decorated American athlete of the Games, Owens had to enter his own celebratory reception at the Waldorf Astoria through the freight elevator. After being banned from amateur competition because he declined to take part in a post-Olympics promotional tour, and with no professional opportunities or sponsorships, Owens worked as a playground janitor. He would later work as a gas station attendant before eventually filing for bankruptcy and being prosecuted for tax evasion. Owens began smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, a habit that would eventually kill him.”

–“Which Leader Snubbed Jesse Owens? Hint: It Wasn’t Hitler,” James Watkins, OZY

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