berlin olympics


August 3rd 1936: Jesse Owens wins 100 metre dash

On this day in 1936 at the Berlin Olympics, American athlete Jesse Owens won the 100 metre dash, defeating world record holder Ralph Metcalfe. Owens won four gold medals, in the 100 metres, 200 metres, long jump, and 4x100 metre relay, which made him the most successful athlete in the 1936 Games. Germany’s Nazi Chancellor Adolf Hitler had intended to use the Games to showcase Aryan supremacy, thus the success of African-American Owens was particularly poignant. His success made him a famous figure, but back home in America segregation was still in place. After a ticker-tape parade for him in New York, he had to ride a separate elevator to reach a reception in his honour. It was often said that Hitler snubbed Owens at the Games, refusing to shake his hand, but whilst the racist Hitler was certainly displeased by Owens’s success, these stories may have been exaggerated. In fact, Owens maintains that it was US President Franklin D. Roosevelt who snubbed him, neglecting to congratulate the athlete for his success. Jesse Owens died in 1980 aged 66.

“A lifetime of training for just ten seconds
- Jesse Owens

Sohn Kee-Chung of Korea, not Son Kitei of Japan

Growing up, I had heard my father talk about Sohn Kee-Chung (손기정). Sohn was the first Korean to win an Olympic medal, and it was gold. At the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, he set a world record in the marathon. So it wasn’t surprising that when the 1988 Games were held in South Korea, Sohn had the honor of carrying the Olympic torch into the Seoul Olympic Stadium.

My parents beamed with pride as they watched the 76-year-old Korean hero leap for joy and run around the track to thunderous applause. They knew what I had not. When Sohn won his gold medal in Berlin, he had to compete under the Japanese name of Son Kitei. Korea, at that time, was part of the Japanese Empire. The bronze medal went to his Korean countryman, Nam Seung-yong (남승룡), who also had to compete under a Japanese name (Nan Shōryū).

My father was about 10 years old when Sohn won his gold medal in Berlin. He remembered how proud Koreans were of the win, but also how bitter they felt that the world wouldn’t know that the winner was Korean, and not Japanese. One Korean newspaper, the Dong-a-Ilbo, tried to right this wrong. They altered the photo of Sohn on the medal podium, so that the Japanese flag was no longer visible. Retribution came quickly. Eight newspaper staffers were arrested and the publication was halted for nine months.

When I was in high school, one of my best friends was a Japanese-American girl. At the time, we knew nothing about what our parents had lived through, or why her parents were initially hesitant about meeting mine. Because of the complicated and brutal history between Korea and Japan, they feared that my mother and father would be uncomfortable around them. They told their daughter, “You and Jae are from a different generation and can be good friends. But her parents may not want Japanese friends.” They were wrong, of course, and ended up socializing with my folks. My dad, in particular, enjoyed speaking to them in Japanese.

My parents grew up speaking Japanese and, until recently, I didn’t realize that I spoke some, too. And then it all started to make sense. The time we were in Hawaii and the Korean waitress couldn’t understand what my Korean mother was requesting. The time I was in Korea and had a difficult time being understood by 20somethings–until I spoke in English. The time my young Korean cousin was visiting us in the U.S. and couldn’t understand me when I asked her, in (what I thought was) Korean, to put some cups on the table. I was speaking Colonial Japanese, more than half a century after Korea had won its independence.

© 2013 JAE-HA KIM

August 3, 1936:  Jesse Owens Breaks Records at Berlin Olympics

On this day in 1936, African American sprinter, Jesse Owens, triumphed at the Berlin Olympics, winning his second of four gold medals at the games and discrediting Adolf Hitler’s theories on the superiority of the Aryan race. While many countries boycotted the Olympic Games that year, the United States brought 312 athletes – 19 African American and 5 Jewish – much to the reluctant approval of the Nazis.

Watch as American Experience tells the story of this 22-year-old son of a sharecropper who became a hero and global sensation in the face of adversity and racism both abroad and back home.

Photo: Jesse Owens at start of record breaking 200 meter race during the Olympic games 1936 in Berlin. Wikimedia Commons
Anthony Mackie On Track To Play Olympian Jesse Owens In Crowding Field

EXCLUSIVE: While Anthony Mackie won’t be at the finish line for Dan Pritzker’s Bolden film, the actor has a passion project of his own that he is about to shop to distributors. The Captain America: The Winter Soldier co-star badly wants to play Jesse Owens, the sprinter whose four gold medal performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics infuriated and demoralized Adolf Hitler and put the lie to his theory that the Germans were the superior race. Mackie got together with his We Are Marshall writer Jamie Linden, and together they are producing an Owens film that was scripted by George Olson under their supervision.

US one sheet for OLYMPIC PRIDE, AMERICAN PREJUDICE (Deborah Riley Draper, USA, 2016)

Designer: Variant Creative

Poster source: Variant

OLYMPIC PRIDE, AMERICAN PREJUDICE explores the experiences of 18 African-American Olympians who defied Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler to win hearts and medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Set against the strained and turbulent atmosphere of a racially divided America, which was torn between boycotting Hitler’s Olympics or participating in the Third Reich’s grandest affair, the film follows 16 men and two women before, during and after their heroic turn at the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. 

OLYMPIC PRIDE, AMERICAN PREJUDICE opens in New York and Los Angeles on August 5th. Find out more here.

Controversy often surrounds the Olympics, and this year in Sochi is no different. But as Jesse Owens proved at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and as portrayed here in Jacob Lawrence’s “Olympic Games Munich 1972,” once the games begin the athletes take center stage, inspiring us with their abilities, dedication, and determination. What Olympians have inspired you?
Learn more about this work.

Olympic Games Munich 1972,” 1971–72, by Jacob Lawrence