Simone: It’s a hot, sunny day in Havana, Cuba. December 1936. And a crowd of a few thousand are gathered in the stands. Below them, a racetrack, where two competitors are gearing up for the big race.
Simone: The first is Jesse Owens. The Buckeye Bullet. Black Magic. The Ebony Streak. He’s fresh off of his impressive showing at the Olympic Games in Berlin just four months prior. Where he won four gold medals.
Simone: But today’s race is different. Because of who Jesse’s opponent is.
Simone: All this fanfare...the crowds…it’s to watch Jesse Owens race against…a horse.
[ARCHIVAL, Announcer: Jesse Owens, the Ebony Streak of the Olympic Games, celebrates turning professional by racing against a horse. Jesse had a start of 40 yards in 100 and he won by inches.]
Simone: How did this happen? How did this Olympian end up racing a horse, just a few months after bringing home gold?
Simone: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history -- and tell you the story of how it shaped our world. I'm Simone Polanen.
Simone: 85 years ago this week, at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track and field. He came back home a hero -- but the celebrations came and went -- leaving Jesse to face the cold reality of a segregated country. The life he led teaches us a lot about America and the myth of what Black Excellence can ultimately get you.
Simone: The runners are in position...so, on your marks, get set... after the break.
Simone: Jesse Owens’s road to the Olympics began in May 1935 -- in what’s often referred to as the greatest 45 minutes in sports history.
Simone: Jesse’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan -- at the Big Ten Championships in track and field. He was 21 years old at the time, and the captain of the Ohio State University team. The first Black athlete to hold that position on a Big Ten team.
Simone: Jesse would be up against some of the best runners in the country.
[ARCHIVAL, Jesse Owens: This was my first Big 10 conference meet. And then I was wondering whether or not I was going to be able to even make it.]
Simone: That’s Jesse Owens himself, in an interview he gave to the Illinois Historical Society.
Simone: That day, Jesse was feeling unsure of himself. Not so much of his abilities -- he had matched the world record in the 100 yard dash while still in high school. But on this day, he was dealing with a back injury. A week before the meet, Owens had slipped and fallen down on a flight of stairs.
Simone: Owens says he was in so much pain, he couldn't even change out of his sweatsuit by himself. His coach, Larry Snyder, wanted to pull him from the 100 yard race. But Owens was defiant.
[ARCHIVAL, Owens: I said, look, let me… if I'm going to lose, let me lose the first race and then withdraw me.]
Simone: Jesse was feeling the pressure that day. He had a lot on the line. With a wife and a baby at home, Jesse was juggling multiple jobs to make his way through college. Everything from sorting books in the school’s library to working the night shift as an elevator operator.
Simone: So this meet…was about more than just victory. It was about his future.
Simone: The Buckeye Bullet was determined to run -- fuck a bad back. So, he started to warm up…
[ARCHIVAL, Owens: I started to jog a little bit to loosen up my legs and the pain was still in my back and it was shooting up through my spine. Not in my legs now...]
Simone: The announcer signaled -- the race was about to begin…Jesse felt the pain surge as he got into starting position, but then…
[ARCHIVAL, Owens: I was off with the gun. My knees were working perfectly. My arms were synchronized with my legs. The body position that we'd worked so hard for was there. And so I finished the a hundred and we ran it in 9-4.]
Simone: 9-4 -- that’s 9.4 seconds. Jesse finished in record time. Literally. He tied the world record for the 100 yard dash. And over the course of the next 45 minutes, he’d go on to break three more records -- in the long jump, the 220 yard dash, and the 220 low hurdles. In 45 minutes. I know I said that already, but damn!
[ARCHIVAL, Owens: Then the crowd of people came out of the stands, and then everybody began to crowd around -- the newspaperman, the photographers. And everybody was asking the questions.]
Simone: Jesse Owens was a star. He went on to compete in dozens more events that season…winning all of them.
Simone: Next up on his schedule: the 1936 Olympic Games -- slated to be held in Berlin. But first, he had to get there -- and there were some pretty significant roadblocks.
Simone: First of all -- we’re talking about Germany in the 1930s. So, you know, Hitler. He’s been in power for only a few years at this point, but was wasting no time implementing his racist, anti-semitic Nazi regime.
Simone: And Hitler wasn’t exactly known for having a “Hey! Welcome everyone from every nation and culture” kinda vibe. He was originally opposed to hosting the games. The privilege of hosting had been awarded to the Weimar Republic, the government in place before he took power. But Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, convinced him the Games could actually be a powerful tool…
David Clay Large: Hitler's propaganda minister went to him and said, you know, these games would be a great kind of coming out party, if you will, for the new Nazi government.
Simone: This is David Clay Large, a history professor at the University of San Francisco and the author of Nazi Games: The Olypmics of 1936.
Large: He said that…these games would provide an ideal opportunity for us to show the world how strong we are. But also to suggest to the world that we're actually peaceful. We can give that impression.
Simone: Hitler and the Nazis also thought the Games would be a perfect chance to showcase just how superior white athletes could be. Because, you know, that was kinda the Nazis whole thing -- a regime hell-bent on creating a master race of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan folk.
Simone: During this time, the Nazis were passing a slew of anti-semitic laws, aimed at excluding Jews from public life in Germany. Many organizations in the US knew about these racist policies, and they were calling for an all out boycott.
Large: It was American Jews in particular, you know, who were looking at the situation in Germany and saying, my God, this is terrible. Also the NAACP was looking at the situation and saying, this is a racist country.
Simone: The NAACP saw the way Germany was discriminating against Jews and other minorities and wrote Owens a letter asking him to pull out of the Games.
Simone: Jesse did consider dropping out.
Simone: As a Black man in America in the 1930s -- who grew up in rural Alabama -- Jesse was intimately familiar with racism and discrimination.
Simone: Despite his star power back at Ohio State University, Jesse wasn’t allowed to live in the dorms on campus. When the team traveled, he had to eat carry-out from the restaurants that only served white people...he had to stay in “Blacks only” hotels. So he saw the power in boycotting a Nazi-run Olympic Games.
Simone: But Jesse’s coach from OSU wasn’t having it. He was like, “Uh, no, you’re going.”
Large: His white coach, Larry Snyder, who had a huge influence on Jesse said, “You've got to be crazy, man. I mean, this is your great opportunity to go to these games. You'll win.”
Simone: Jesse’s got this split consciousness — on one shoulder, he has his Black community pushing him to drop out as a symbolic act. But on the other is his coach, reminding of the very real success that could come from Olympic glory.
Simone: So he goes for the opportunity -- thinking maybe his win could mean a win for people like him.
Simone: He would later write, “If I could just win those gold medals, I said to myself, the Hitlers of the world would have no more meaning for me. For anyone, maybe.”
Simone: Plus, he stood to gain a lot personally, too.
Large: Jesse all along really wanted to go. And he had hoped to turn success in Berlin into success back home. Uh, not just in terms of prestige and social acceptance, but monetary success. He hoped to be able to become a kind of early professional track athlete.
Simone: The American Olympic Committee was also pushing for athletes to go…and when it came down to a vote by the Amateur Athletic Union…it was decided by the narrowest of margins that American athletes would be heading to Berlin.
Simone: So, in July of 1936, amid a frenzy of spectators waving thousands of American flags, Owens boards the SS Manhattan in the New York harbor.
[ARCHIVAL, Owens: Whoever thought of I have to be going abroad, going to Germany, or any place else...]
[ARCHIVAL, Reporter: The little boy from Alabama.]
[ARCHIVAL, Owens: That’s right. Here you are standing on the threshold of all of this. Sure, it's a big moment and a big thrill.]
Simone: Owens and the rest of the Olympians sailed together on the luxury liner. The athletes enjoyed a captain’s ball, bingo, even a casino night.
Large: The Olympians all sailed together, there was no segregation of any kind on the boat. His only complaint was that he didn't get enough time to work out, that he was gaining a little weight, you know, because of that, the food was quite good.
Simone: After a week and a half at sea, the American athletes arrived to throngs of Germans. But it wasn't the whole USA team that the Germans were waiting for -- they wanted to see Jesse Owens.
[ARCHIVAL, Announcer: The shipload of American athletes and officials arrive at Hamburg, the Olympic Games their goal. Here is Jesse Owens, the one man track team from the University of Ohio. More than 300 athletes march ashore on German soil. Ready to fight for first place in the Olympic events.]
[ARCHIVAL, Owens: German people were wonderful. They had thousands to greet us as we came into the station, and they cheered and cheered, and they were calling out your name, as you sat atop of a bus and rode to the city hall and people wanted to get a look at you.]
Large: Jesse Owens was extremely popular. He was hounded by autograph-seekers wherever he went. Women were trying slipping him notes, trying to get him, uh, for an assignation of some sort or another. He was the most popular athlete in Berlin -- hands down.
Simone: Owens and other Black athletes largely reported having positive experiences while in Germany. On buses, they didn’t have to ride in the back. And they were allowed to stay in the same hotels as whites.
Simone: But don’t be fooled, though -- this was all by design. The Germans had gone on a “clean-up campaign” prior to the games. Which in Berlin, included things like removing anti-semitic signs from the streets and allowing Jewish people into restaurants and theaters.
Simone: It was all part of that larger strategy for the Germans -- to turn the Games into one big propaganda show.
Simone: But behind the scenes, the Nazis felt threatened by Owens -- and what his athletic prowess meant for their racist ideals.
Large: The German government's reaction or point of view was that the less said about Owens race, the better, because they understood Jesse Owens was likely to win some medals. Exactly how many, nobody knew. But they didn’t want victory being coupled with, with being black.
[ARCHIVAL, Announcer: The Olympic Games have begun. The best athletes in the world have come to Berlin and 51 nations are represented here today.]
Simone: On August 1, the games begin. Jesse Owens’s first event -- the 100m dash -- takes place two days later, on August 3rd.
[ARCHIVAL, Announcer: The six fastest sprinters of the world are getting ready. Owens: America. Borchmeyer: Germany. And Metcalfe: America. (Gun fires.) Owens is ahead! (inaudible) Metcalfe guns up. Owens wins in 10.3.]
Simone: Jesse sails past his competitors to clinch the gold. Right after the race, he’s interviewed on the field.
[ARCHIVAL, Owens: I'm very glad to have won the 100 meters in the Olympic Games here in Berlin, a very beautiful place and a very beautiful setting. The competition was grand and we're very glad to come out on top. Thank you very kindly.]
Simone: Owens stands atop the podium, smiling from ear to ear -- and the mostly German crowds are going wild.
Simone: On the first day of the games, Hitler had made a point to shake the hands of certain athletes. The question then becomes: will Hitler congratulate Jesse by shaking his hand?
Simone: The answer, dear listener, was...no. No, obviously not. It’s literally Hitler...
Simone: But this rebuke becomes this huge scandal back home in America.
Large: The press, especially the African American press, picked up on this and saw a double standard.
Large: And there were calls then, in the Black press, for the Americans to officially protest against this and to go to the IOC about it and to call Hitler on the carpet, all this, all this kind of thing.
Large: And so this was picked up by white papers as well and became a kind of gospel. There was a real rage over this.
Simone: I mean, it shouldn’t have come as that much of a shock! This is a man who later told the leaders of Hitler Youth, “The Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by Negroes…I myself would never shake hands with one of them.”
Simone: So, okay, the press back home was pissed. But Jesse, he just kept running and kept winning.
Simone: Over the course of the next week, Owens went on to win three more gold medals -- in the long jump, the 200 meter dash and the 4x100 meter relay. He absolutely dominated.
Simone: In a CBC interview years later, Owens spoke about that handshake controversy.
[ARCHIVAL, Owens: I didn't go to shake hands with Hitler. We went to run, and run we did, and we had a marvelous time. So sorry that he didn't. And where he is is no particular concern of mine.]
Simone: For Jesse, it wasn’t Hitler who he felt snubbed by, but another world leader.
Simone: We’ll get into that after the break.
Simone: Before the break, sprinter Jesse Owens had just won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Simone: When his ship docks back in New York, he receives a hero’s welcome: he’s greeted by thousands of people, including his family, several well-known politicians... and 300 reporters, all vying to ask him questions. There’s a New York ticker tape parade held in his honor, where he’s ferried around in a black convertible.
Simone: But that wash of love he gets on his return...it only lasts for so long…
[ARCHIVAL, Owens: I came back to America, hailed as a hero. The ticker tape parades in many cities -- New York city, my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, and wherever I went. For 10 days.]
[ARCHIVAL, Owens: And after those 10 days, then you were regulated to the back of the bus. You could not eat in first-class restaurants. You could not stay in first-class hotels, but yet, still you were an American and yet, still you were a hero, but the social structure of America remained firm.]
Simone: 10 days. That’s how long Jesse Owens is celebrated. That’s how long it takes for the sheen of Olympic victory to wear off, and for the realities of Black life in 1930s America to set back in.
Simone: Like when Owens is invited to a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, to honor him and other Olympians. When he shows up, he’s told he has to use the freight elevator to get to the event. The event being held in his honor.
Simone: Then, to make matters worse, Jesse never gets any recognition of his accomplishments from his own national leader, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Simone: After the Games, Roosevelt had invited White Olympic medal winners to the White House. But he didn’t extend the honor to Black winners. Including Jesse Owens. Professor Large says this really bothered Jesse.
Large: He went on to say that Roosevelt was really the one who snubbed him because Roosevelt hadn't sent him any telegrams to congratulate him on his four victories in Berlin.
Simone: Damn, a brother can’t even get a telegram! Shit.
Simone: So his accomplishments aren’t acknowledged by his own president. And then, Jesse’s other hopes for recognition begin to fall apart, too.
Large: He tried to make a living out of his track victories in Berlin. He tried, but he couldn't.
Simone: Jesse’s intention after winning all those golds was to flip his newfound fame into some more lucrative financial opportunities…while he’s still abroad, he’s offered $40,000 to do an American vaudeville tour. He’s got his eyes set on commercial deals, racing opportunities…But then, the vaudeville tour never happens. The national endorsement deals never materialize.
Simone: Jesse gets the message that companies, especially in the South, don’t want -- as he puts it -- “the Negro’s picture on any brand.”
Simone: It’s funny -- when Jesse was competing in the Olympics, the American press had been so appalled by the racism of the Nazi regime. But here he is, dealing with similar barriers at home.
Simone: Jesse doesn’t care about a handshake from Hitler -- he wants equal opportunity in America…it’s part of what he was running for...
Simone: After winning the gold in Berlin, he writes this in a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier:
Simone: “Millions of Americans will recognize now what I and the boys of my race are trying to do is attempted for the glory of our country and our countrymen.”
Simone: Jesse continues, “Maybe more people will realize that the Negro is trying to do his full part as an American citizen.”
Simone: But minds don’t change that fast. Back home, with all his hopes vanished, he realizes, he’s not living in the America he hoped could do better. He’s living in the America he always knew.
Simone: The America where just a few short generations ago, his grandfather was enslaved. The America in which his parents were sharecroppers. And where, he, as a little kid, picked a hundred pounds of cotton a day.
Simone: The one where athletics were his best hope out of poverty. And the one where his college coach, Larry Snyder, told him he had to be soooo careful...not to upset white people.
Large: He had a coach who was constantly telling him he had to mind his P's and Q's because, you know, he could get in big trouble if he ever spoke out or did anything that made him look uppity.
[ARCHIVAL, Owens: And, uh, he was constantly on me about the job that I was to do, and the responsibility that I had up on that campus, and how I must be able to carry myself because people were looking -- everybody’s eyes were upon you and they were scrutinized everything that you did. And so therefore you had to be very, very careful.]
[ARCHIVAL, Interviewer: Did you get tired of this sometimes?]
[ARCHIVAL, Owens: Oh yes, you get tired of living in a glass bowl. Sometimes people forget you’re a human being and that you, uh, you’re no different than any other mortal man, uh, that you would like to do things the same as anyone else would like to do. But people won’t let you do it.]
Simone: And yet, Jesse wasn’t the same as any other mortal man. He was extraordinary. And the fact that he was so extraordinary did help to challenge racist theories that whites were genetically superior in every way.
Large: For many, you know, open-minded people, uh, black, white, whatever said, “You know, this is just great. I mean, here you have proof that African-Americans are equal to anyone.” Uh, but others were looking for ways to explain quote unquote, the victories by Owens and other African Americans that wouldn't that wouldn't force them to, to accept the idea of equality. By finding these spurious explanations for the victories and for limiting their scope.
Simone: Yeah, so in a really fucked up way, as Professor Large says, Jesse’s talents were also used against him. The dominance that he and other Black athletes showed proved to be a double-edged sword -- with one end smashing the lie of white supremacy. But the other -- a belief that that dominance was proof of some kind of unfair advantage -- kept stabbing them in the back…by people in the scientific community and the press…
Large: They suggested that well, in certain sports, Blacks had advantages, unnatural advantages due to their biological makeup, their chemical makeup, their closeness to, you know, ape, I hate this, but ape ancestors. This was the kind of thing you found. I'm not making this up, this was publicized at the time.
Simone: Even Larry Synder, Jesse’s longtime coach, subscribed to these ideas. He credited Jesse’s speed to his natural muscular advantages as a Negro…and because he always followed orders from his white coaches…man, fuck that guy.
Simone: So these were the conditions Jesse found himself in after the Games. Hopes for equality dashed. Financial hopes dashed. Over the course of the next five years or so, he’s forced to take menial jobs -- working as a playground maintenance man, a radio entertainer, and a bandleader. He was so strapped for cash, that months after he got back from the Olympics, he had to take on gigs staging entertainment races — like racing against the boxer Joe Lewis, racing against a car, and the horse we told you about at the top of the show.
Simone: Owens commented on this later in life. “People say it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do?," "I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals."
Large: When he did make a little money, he didn't properly pay his taxes. And so he got sued by the IRS. He opened up a dry cleaning company that went belly up. He had a lot of financial difficulties.
Simone: But then, in the early 40s, after multiple financial failures, things start to get a bit easier for Owens. In 1942, the military appoints him the Director of National Fitness. A year later, Ford Motor Company hires him in their recruitment office. And in 1949, he opens his own public relations firm, and eventually becomes a sought after speaking figure, finally finding a way to profit from his Olympic fame.
Simone: But Owens's recognition on the national stage didn't come until 40 years after his Olympic victory -- that’s like six presidents after FDR.
[ARCHIVAL, President Gerald Ford: Jesse, it’s my great privilege to present to you today...]
Simone: In 1976, President Gerald Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom…finally, Jesse had made it to the White House.
[ARCHIVAL, Ford: To Jesse Owens: athlete, humanitarian, speaker, author, a master of the spirit as well as the mechanics of sport.]
Simone: Four years later, in 1980, Jesse Owens died of lung cancer. He was lauded, again, as a national hero.
[ARCHIVAL, Anchor: They buried Jesse Owens today in Chicago, and they paid him tribute as a champion, not only among athletes, but among all men -- a man who had made his country proud so many times over so many years.]
Simone: 85 years after Jesse Owens took home four golds, the treatment he received as a Black athlete is infuriatingly similar to how Black athletes are still treated today.
Simone: I can’t help but think about gymnast Simone Biles and her journey to this year’s Olympics in Tokyo.
Simone: To call her an exceptional athlete would be an understatement. Back in 2016, she brought home four gold medals -- just like Jesse Owens did in 1936. So the expectations were sky-high for her performance at this year’s Games. But at the women’s team finals, she faltered, flubbing the vault -- her best event -- and eventually pulled out of that and several other events.
Simone: It shocked everyone. Biles later shared that she pulled out for mental health reasons. Many have praised her for the choice to drop out, but some have criticized her for it.
Simone: And the general tone of the criticism seems to be — we don’t care if you’re not “feeling it,” by not competing, by not winning gold, you let your country down.
Simone: The racism contained in that attitude is subtle if you’re not attuned to it. It’s not as overt as the discrimination Jesse Owens faced, but it cuts just the same.
Simone: This is what I really hear when I hear that take: we value you only so far as what you’re able to deliver. Meet our expectations and we’ll continue to raise them. Fail to meet them, and we’ll stop valuing you. We care about what you do -- for us. And only for us.
Simone: So my question is, when Simone comes home from the games, how will America receive her? Will we love Simone Biles as much as we do when she's bringing home gold medals? Have we left enough room in our impossible expectations of her -- expectations she has regularly met and exceeded -- to allow her to be human?
Simone: In a tweet following her withdrawal, Simone wrote, “The outpouring [of] love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics, which I never truly believed before.”
Simone: To see someone like Simone express this revelation about her own value -- to be honest -- freaks me out. Even the GOAT can’t leave space for the humanity in herself.
Simone: But I can’t blame her. It’s an American tradition...to use Black athletes for their talents and discard the rest.
Simone: And until we change that, the story for Black athletes in America will continue to look a lot like the tragedy of Jesse Owens. And adopting their narrative and their success as a national symbol of pride will remain problematic…and frankly, dishonest.
Simone: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media. This episode was produced by Sarah Craig. Next week, we have a story about a robbery…the robbery of someone’s shot at fame...and their voice.
Martha Walsh: I started getting phone calls…”Wait a minute, what’s going on? Why is she singing to you? Why is she lip syncing to your vocals? Why, why!?”
Simone: Our producer is Kinsey Clarke. The associate producer is Julie Carli. Our intern is Laura Newcombe. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Andrea B. Scott and Zac Stuart-Pontier. Fact checking by Jane Ackermann. Sound design and mixing by Bobby Lord. Original Music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, Peter Leonard, and Bobby Lord. Our theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! With Music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart-Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka.
Simone: Special thanks to David Clay Large, Damion Thomas, Megan Klintworth, Elizabeth Druga, Halle Mares, Michelle Drobik, Greg Kinney, Lydia Polgreen, Dan Behar and Clara Sankey. Emily Wiedemann, Liz Stiles, and Nabeel Chollampat.
Simone: The interview you heard of Jesse Owens is Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.
Simone: Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. And follow me on Twitter @SimonePolanen. Thanks for hangin’. We’ll see you next week.