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Jesse Owens Wins his First Gold

Despite a climate thick with racial tension, 75 years ago today, the track star made history at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin

The Jesse Owens stamp, copyright USPS

Last week, Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford called the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin “the most fascinating and historically influential Games.” Reflecting on the 75th anniversary of those summer games, he wrote, “It was novelty and glory and evil all in athletic conjunction as never before or since.”

Adolf Hitler went into the Olympics with the hopes of displaying the supremacy of the so-called Aryan race. “With that inherent thoroughness for which they have long been noted, the Germans plunged gayly into every event, some of which they scarcely understood a few years ago,” wrote John Drebinger in the New York Times in December 1936.

Ultimately, the Germans placed first overall in the medal count with 101 medals to the United States’ second-place earning 57. But, one sport, which the United States prevailed in, was in track and field—thanks, in great part, to a track star from Cleveland named Jesse Owens. The son of a sharecropper and grandson of slaves, Owens began racing at age 13. He became one of the top sprinters in the country while attending East Technical High School in Cleveland and went on to break world records in the broad jump (now called long jump), 220-yard dash and 220-yard low hurdles—and match one in the 100-yard dash—while just a sophomore at Ohio State University. A year later, in 1936, Owens traveled to Berlin, as one of 66 athletes, ten of whom were black, on the United States Olympic track team. “The Nazis derided the Americans for relying on what the Nazis called an inferior race, but of the 11 individual gold medals in track won by the American men, six were won by blacks,” reads Owens’s 1980 obituary in the New York Times.

Owens became an instant hero, taking home four gold medals—in the 100 meters, 200 meters, broad jump and 400-meter relay. ”Traveling with the speed of a Mercury incarnate, this most amazing athlete of all time confounded even Hitler, considered no mean achievement in itself,” wrote Drebinger. ”Most every time he stepped on the track he broke a record of some sort and in the end received a record-smashing ovation from a vast gallery that seemed fully cognizant of the fact it was acclaiming a most marvelous athlete.”

Hitler, however, refused to congratulate him with even a simple handshake.

It was a huge snub. Yet, years later, Owens would acknowledge that the response even from leadership in his own country fell short of what might be expected. President Franklin D. Roosevelt hadn’t congratulated him either. Owens never received a phone call from the president or an invitation to the White House. Finally, in 1976, the track star received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford.

Today marks the day, 75 years ago, when Owens earned the first of his four Olympic golds, by edging out his teammate Ralph Metcalfe in the 100-meter dash. Post-Olympics, Owens became a much-desired public speaker. In his speeches, he often described what it was like to line up on the track and represent his country in the Olympics. “It’s a nervous, a terrible feeling. You feel, as you stand there, as if your legs can’t carry the weight of your body. Your stomach isn’t there, and your mouth is dry, and your hands are wet with perspiration. And you begin to think in terms of all those years that you have worked. In my particular case, the 100 meters, as you look down the field 109 yards 2 feet away, and recognizing that after eight years of hard work that this is the point that I had reached and that all was going to be over in 10 seconds,” said Owens. “Those are great moments in the lives of individuals.”

The National Portrait Museum has in its collection (not on display, but in an online exhibition) a painting by the late Paul Calle depicting Jesse Owens leaping over a hurdle. Commissioned by the United States Postal Service, the painting served as the image on a stamp, also in the museum’s collection, issued in 1998.

Calle was highly regarded as a stamp designer. His best known stamp is one he made in 1969 to commemorate the moon landing. He was actually the only artist allowed to watch astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins prep for the July 16, 1969 launch of Apollo 11, and a series of his pen-and-ink sketches are on exhibition in “NASA Art: 50 Years of Exploration,” at the National Air and Space Museum through October 9.

When Calle passed away in December 2010, at age 82, his New York Times obituary resurrected a morsel he once shared about his process. “When you do a stamp,” he said, in an interview after the moon landing, “think big, but draw small.”

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