In A Nutshell
Jesse Owens made history by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This made the Nazi claims of Aryan supremacy look like rubbish, and in consequence Hitler is popularly supposed to have snubbed Owens. But actually, when he refused to acknowledge Owens, he was treating him just like he’d treated all the other athletes.
The Whole Bushel
The 1936 Olympic Games are perhaps the most notorious in the history of the event, due to the fact that they were hosted by Nazi Germany. The games had been awarded to Germany by the International Olympic Committee on May 13, 1931, a year and a half before Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. Although Hitler himself had minimal regard for the Olympics due to their international character, Josef Goebbels persuaded him of their propaganda value. As a result, the Nazi regime ended up providing full funding for the event.
International opinion was skeptical about the Olympics being held by the Nazis. In response to Jewish athletes such as the high-jumper Greta Bergmann, the amateur boxing champion Eric Seelig, and the tennis player Daniel Prenn, American Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage said: “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.” The Nazis managed to hoodwink Brundage and other skeptics into believing that Jews were being treated fairly, lest the Games be taken from them and held elsewhere.
In order to offset further international disdain for the event, the Nazis toned down their anti-Semitic campaign and their militaristic stance, presenting their regime as a peaceful one. The subterfuge worked: Attempts to have the United States boycott the games, spearheaded by Amateur Athletic Union president Jeremiah T. Mahoney, failed. In light of what was to happen, though, the failure of the American boycott was something that many of the Nazis would have cause to regret, too.
For it was an American athlete, Jesse Owens, who would go on to be the star of the event. He set an Olympic record by leaping 8.06 meters (26.5 ft) in the long jump and won gold medals in the long jump, the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and the 4×100-meter relay. That Owens was an African-American was particularly notable: In an event hosted by a regime that promoted the ideal of white racial superiority, Owens’ spectacular success and four gold medals stood in stark contrast to the myth of the Aryan master race that the Nazis sought to promote through the Olympics. It was a contrast that American journalists were all too eager to report on, jubilant that one of the “black auxiliaries” that the Nazi press ridiculed had upstaged the regime.
Given the situation, it was rumored that Hitler himself refused to acknowledge Jesse Owens out of spite for making the Nazis’ claims of racial superiority look like the arrant nonsense that it was. Olympic protocol obliged Hitler to either receive all medal winners or none, and Hitler chose to receive none. Reports circulated that Hitler’s snub was intended to let him avoid shaking hands with “non-Aryans,” particularly Owens.
However, despite this plausible interpretation, the snub was disputed by Owens himself, who said: “Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened that 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 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.” To say that Owens had nothing to gain by speaking highly of Adolf Hitler would be an understatement at best, so we have to assume that this is honest. Indeed, he compared Hitler favorably to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who also didn’t invite Owens to shake his hand.