The history of sport is filled with great moments. Memorable moments. Moments that didn’t just stand out in our minds for their spectacle, but touched us as humans. And sometimes these moments provide a window into the human condition, and how something as seemingly meaningless as a single race can mean a world of difference in the light of history.
Berlin, 1936. The capital of Nazi Germany plays host to the Summer Olympics. Hitler hopes to use this opportunity to not only show off the aesthetic greatness of his Germany, but also to prove true his myth of Aryan physical supremacy. The games were meant to prove to the world that Germany was returning to greatness, with Hitler’s Nazi Party at the helm.
But Hitler hadn’t counted on someone like Jesse Owens. Owens, a black American track star who had excelled at the University of Ohio, came to Berlin in 1936 already an accomplished athletic talent. As an NCAA athlete, he had set three world records in 1935 on the same day, in what some regard as the “greatest 45 minutes in the history of sports” (hyperlink!!!). Owens came to Berlin anything but an underdog, but nevertheless, there was unimaginable symbolic pressure on him to counter the aggressive and brash rhetoric of his German hosts.
And counter it he did. From August 3-9 Owens won a total of four Gold Medals in the 100 and 200 meter sprints, the long jump, and the 4×100 sprint relay. His achievements ripped to shreds the racist rhetoric of Hitler’s regime, and are undoubtedly some of the most remembered moments of athletic history. For a black man to achieve victory in the heart of Nazi Germany remains one of the most morally and emotionally satisfying outcomes in the history of sports. Where most sporting events are seen from at least two angles, that of the defeated and that of the victor, the Victory of Owens in Berlin stands in a category of its own. It is rare in sports to have an outcome that makes humanity the victor. While Hitler’s Germany represented the worst qualities of humanity, Jesse Owens represented triumph in the face of such a negative setting. In the face of intolerance, xenophobia, and hate, Owens represented discipline, class, and achievement. Situations like this are rare to arise, and rarer still are they played out in such a storybook manner.
What also stands out about the achievements of Owens is that they were not solely about athletic prowess. They represented an empirically sound refuting of the worldview of one of the worst societies to ever exist in the history of humanity. Sports often provide us with an illumination of the power of the human spirit. They let us into the world of competition, and often illuminate national pride and a sense of unity. It reminds us if the benefits of hard work, what we can achieve, and to be gracious in defeat. It is rare, however, that athletic achievement transcends the barrier of physical achievement and enters a wholly new realm of spiritual meaning. The triumph of Jesse Owens in Berlin in 1936 is the proverbial triumph of good over evil. It was a moment when, through athletics, the world was reminded that no amount of ill-will and hatred can overcome the hard work and indomitable spirit of some humans. It serves as a tale we can always use to remind ourselves that we are all just people, and there is no reason to pretend superiority belongs to one group of people.
The success of Jesse Owens in 1936 was a victory for humanity. It was an ideological victory over prejudice, hatred, and exclusion. It tore Hitler’s rhetoric of Aryan supremacy to shreds, and reminded the entire world that we are one. It is one of the greatest moments sport has ever provided humanity with.