“Jesse Owens returns to Berlin Olympics 1936”

Written, directed, and produced by Bud Greenspan, this 1966 documentary tells the story of Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympic Games.

Owens was one of the greatest American athletes of the 20th century, on a par with Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. A track phenom out of Ohio State University, he began breaking world records while still in high school, culminating in winning four gold medals in the premier track-and-field events at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

What made his accomplishment so extraordinary was the context in which it was achieved. The 1936 Olympics were held in Nazi Germany, which was firmly under the control of Adolf Hitler at the time. One of the cornerstones of the Nazi mindset was the racial and biological inferiority of what they considered “Untermensch,” primarily Jews, Slavs and Blacks. Just two months earlier, German boxer Max Schmeling gained worldwide acclaim by knocking out undefeated African-American boxer Joe Louis. Hitler and the Nazis intended to use the 1936 Olympics as a propaganda windfall to prove to the world their theory of racial superiority. And they might have pulled it off, had Jesse Owens — an African American — not spoiled their plans.

Owens captured the gold in the long jump, with German athlete Luz Long, who was favored to win, coming in second. Owens and fellow African American Ralph Metcalfe took gold and silver in the 100-meter dash, with the winner being recognized as the fastest man on earth. Owens and Mack Robinson (also African American) then came in first and second in the 200-meter race, with Germany failing to finish in the top three in either race. In the 4-by-100 relay, the United States won the gold with two of the four runners, Owens and Metcalfe, being Black. Germany had to settle for third place.

Personable and articulate, Owens became the darling of the 1936 Olympic Games. By winning so convincingly, he shattered the German assumption of racial superiority. An infuriated Hitler declined to shake the hand of any gold medal winner after the first day of the Olympics, including Owens. This led to widespread speculation that Hitler personally snubbed Owens because he was Black. That may have partially been the case. However, Owens felt that it was President Roosevelt who had snubbed him and the other Black athletes on the U.S. Olympic team. Only the team’s white members were invited to the White House. It wasn’t until 2016, when President Barack Obama invited their relatives to attend an event, that they were finally given official White House recognition.

To view the documentary, click here.

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Steve Corbo

A founding member and corporate secretary of the Italian American Veterans Museum, Steve Corbo is the museum’s curator and a military consultant for Fra Noi. He has served for 25 years as president of S.A. Corbo & Associates Inc., providing professional liability insurance to health care providers. The son and nephew of World War II veterans and a passionate military historian for over 50 years, he has written and published articles on a variety of topics, including military history, and serves as the military consultant for Fra Noi, the Chicago-area Italian-American magazine.

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