The Gold Standard
Jesse Owens loved to run. As a young boy, he ran through cotton fields in Alabama. As a teenager, he ran on city streets in Ohio. And now came the moment that the twenty-two-year-old athlete had been training for—the Olympic Summer Games.
In 1936 the Games were held in Berlin, Germany. Adolf Hitler, Germany's leader, was the head of the Nazi party. The Nazis hated blacks, Jews, and others who were not "pure" Germans. To Hitler, the Games would prove that blond-haired, blue-eyed German athletes were supermen and superwomen. Being a black American, Jesse Owens was not part of the Nazis' "master race." But he did not care. He was only thinking about running, jumping—and winning.
A light rain was falling during Jesse's first big race for a medal, the 100-meter run. The dirt track was uneven and messy. But from the starting shot, Jesse seemed to fly. The speed of his graceful high step set him apart as he focused on reaching the finish line. Then, just as the race neared its end, teammate Ralph Metcalfe began to catch up. The crowd cheered on the racers as Jesse sprinted ahead. He tied the record of 10.3 seconds and won the race by a comfortable one meter (3.3 feet). The gold medal was his.
Over the next week, Jesse set three new world records—in the broad jump, the 200-meter run, and the 400-meter relay. He became the first American track and field star to win four gold medals at a single Olympics. According to a reporter who witnessed the scene, Hitler, who was sitting down, gave "a friendly little Nazi salute" but didn't stand up and cheer. Lutz Long, a famous German broad-jumper, congratulated the man who beat him. A German filmmaker recording the Olympics for Hitler focused her camera on Jesse. Children in Berlin followed the American athlete, chanting his name. Jesse's warm smile became a familiar sight in newspapers and to his fans.
The grandson of former slaves, Jesse Owens was now famous and admired around the world. Though he would never brag, he was very proud of himself. Few people realized how hard his journey to the championship had been—a journey that began twenty-two years before, in a shack in Alabama.