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Jesse Owens’ achievements at 1936 Olympics were ‘thumb in the eye’ to Adolf Hitler, says US athlete’s grandson

<i>Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

By Ben Morse and Don Riddell, CNN

(CNN) — American Jesse Owens’ achievements at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin – he won four gold medals in the 100 meters, the 200m, the 4x100m relay and the long jump – made him a track and field great.

Those achievements came under the gaze of Adolf Hitler, who had initially planned for the Olympics held in Nazi Germany to showcase what he believed to be the racial superiority of White, so-called “Aryan” athletes, openly denigrating Black American participants as “non-humans.”

The image of Owens – one of 18 Black athletes on the US team – atop the podium and surrounded by individuals giving the Nazi salute has become part of Olympic lore.

Owens’ grandson Stuart Owen Rankin describes the track and field great’s actions as a “thumb in the eye” to Hitler.

“My grandfather’s legacy continues to prosper. When people do find out and it’s not often that I discuss it outwardly, but people do eventually find out, for example, perhaps through watching interviews like this, their response is always positive,” Rankin told CNN’s Don Riddell.

“Their response is one that fills me with pride. Again, their response speaks to my grandfather’s accomplishments and the enduring quality of what he did in ‘36 and sort of the timelessness of those accomplishments.”

‘A bond, a brotherhood, a connection’

Another enduring memory from the 1936 Games was Owens’ connection with the German long-jumper Luz Long.

Owens and Long were seen as the two favorites to compete for the gold medal in the long jump at the Berlin Games.

The two men came from very different backgrounds. Owens was a Black American and Long was a White German living in Nazi Germany.

Given the circumstances of the 1936 Olympics, a level of hostility might have been expected between the long jumpers. In fact, the opposite was true.

According to Rankin, Owens said Long offered him advice on how to not overstep, which was an issue the US athlete was having in the long jump qualifying competition.

Following Long’s advice, Owens said he put down a towel at a mark to help him perfect his run-up and in doing so, the American was able to successfully book his spot in the long-jump final. Owens went on to claim gold, while Long secured the silver.

“It took a lot of courage for [Long] to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens later said of his friendship with Long. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Long at that moment.”

Rankin says the two became “comrades, became allies, became friends” by pushing themselves to greater heights.

“What came from that was a bond, a brotherhood, a connection between two world class athletes on the highest stage of their particular event or sport.”

Long was killed fighting for Nazi Germany in World War II, but the families of the Americn and German still remain in contact, bonded through their grandfathers’ friendship, according to Rankin.

Owens’ grandson recalls traveling to Munich for business and a colleague, upon finding out who his grandfather was, asked if he knew who Long was.

Once they had established that he did, Rankin’s colleague scrolled through his contacts’ list and found the name Julia Long, the German long jumper’s granddaughter.

Through that connection, Rankin and Long’s granddaughter met for dinner, an evening he describes as a “very special meal, a very special conversation.”

“We both spoke to what it was like to be the grandchild of an Olympian, particularly an Olympian from those Games and particularly our respective grandfathers and only Julia could speak to what it’s like in a way that’s similar to how I could speak to what it’s like,” remembers Rankin.

“And so, we of course bonded over that. We talked about our personal interests that are likely to have been influenced by our grandfathers, our interests in outdoors and physicality and sports. So it was, it was a very special time and a very special conversation and the connection continues on today.”


After the Berlin Games, widespread, institutionalized racism and segregation in the US meant Owens’ achievements weren’t fully appreciated when he returned home.

Although the then-22-year-old Owens did receive a New York ticker tape parade, he was forced to ride in a freight elevator to a reception in his honor at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

“Although I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler,” Owens said, “I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.”

Owens also failed to attract the endorsements and sponsorship deals enjoyed by White athletes, and was reduced to running exhibition races against motorbikes and horses to make ends meet.

It was not until the 1950s, 20 years after his Berlin triumph, that he finally achieved a measure of financial security, opening a public relations firm and becoming a highly successful public speaker.

Owens later received the two highest civilian honors the US can bestow. In 1976, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Gerald Ford, and in 1990, a decade after his death from lung cancer, President George H.W. Bush presented his widow a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal.

In perhaps the most fitting memorial to his achievements, a street in Berlin was renamed in his honor in 1984.

Asked what the reception would be for Owens upon his return to the US had he achieved his feats in 2024, Rankin says his grandfather would “recognize … almost immeasurable strides in progress in terms of race relations here within the United States.”

However, Rankin added that there are “still people, many people, people in power, people in positions of authority that hold onto that mindset of 1930s America.

“And I think that it would not be lost on him, that we still have a long way to go when it comes to many people’s mindsets towards people who are different from them.”

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“August 4th: An Olympic Odyssey” is available to watch on-demand across Europe on Max and Discovery+.

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