This summary was written by the staff at bham.net. To see the
full article, see The
Runner Who Defeated the Nazis.
In a "hot but harmonious" field in Oakville on June 29,
thousands of Alabamians of all backgrounds paid tribute to a man
who took 10.3 seconds to shatter Nazi illusions of racial supremacy.
The Olympic torch relay, on its way to the Atlanta games, stopped
in Oakville for the unveiling of a statue honoring an Alabama native
who won four gold medals in the 1936 Munich Olympics.
The Olympic Stadium in Munich had been built to showcase the superiority
of the Aryan race. Owens, a black man from Alabama, showed up the
Nazis in one of the most famous moments in Olympic history.
Owens was born near Oakville, the son of a sharecropper and the
grandson of slaves. At age 9, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio with his
family and set world records for high school track events. He won
the state championship three consecutive years.
Though he is best remembered for his Olympic medals, many say his
most remarkable performance came as a member of the Ohio State University
track team. A week before the Big Ten meet, he injured his back
and could not practice all week. The day of the meet, he could not
warm up or stretch, but at the last he decided not to withdraw from
In a 45-minute span, he equaled or broke four world records.
The next year, he became one of 10 blacks on the 66-person United
States Olympic track team. Of the 11 individual gold medals won
by the U.S. in Munich, six were by blacks.
Owens won the 100-meter dash, in 10.3 seconds. He also won the
200-meter and 400-meter events, and was on the 400-meter relay team.
He was not scheduled to run the relay, but the US Olympic officials
decided that instead of offending the Nazis, they would replace
the two Jews on the relay team - Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller
- with Owens and another black.
Glickman will be one of the featured guests, along with Owens'
daughter, Marlene Rankin, at the United States Holocaust Memorial
Museum on July 18 as the museum unveils an exhibition on the 1936
The exhibit will be at the museum for one year before becoming
a traveling exhibition. Through oral histories, panels and videos,
it will trace the Nazi use of the Olympics as a propaganda piece,
explore the treatment of Jewish athletes from Germany and other
countries, and detail the treatment Owens and other black athletes
received when they returned to the US
Though the world buzzed with talk about Hitler's refusal to shake
hands with Owens, the Olympic star came back home to a country where
he could not ride in the front of a bus. While his Ohio State teammates
stayed at fancy hotels, Owens and other black athletes had to sleep
in local YMCAs. At restaurants, his teammates would sneak food out
the back door to Owens, who had to stay in the bus.
He was not invited to the White House until 1976, when President
Gerald Ford presented him with the Medal of Freedom. He died in
The slow recognition of Owens' efforts in his native country is
in contrast to the reaction he received in Germany following his
victories. When Owens ascended the platform to receive his gold
medal in Munich, the 100,000 Germans in the stadium chanted his
And later in the competition, he became friends with German broad-jump
competitor Lutz Long, who advised Owens on the best way to launch
his jump. On his first jump, Owens broke the world record. Long
then matched him.
Owens then set a new record on his final jump, bringing an embrace
from Long. The Aryan and the African-American marched around the
stadium as the crowd roared.
One of those cheering for Owens was 12-year-old Thea Petschek Iervolino,
a Jewish girl living in Berlin. Her father took her to the Olympics
almost every day. She was captivated by Owens' athletic ability
and almost all of the photos she took with her Brownie box camera
were of Owens. "His running was so elegant and effortless -
like a panther - his face and physique, so beautiful," she