Leni Riefenstahl Captures Jesse Owens Dashing Nazi Dreams at the 1936 Olympics

Jesse Owens, the son of a share­crop­per and grand­son of slaves, went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and upset Hitler’s visions of Aryan suprema­cy. He did it not once, but four times, win­ning gold medals in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, the long jump and the 4 x 100 meter relay. The first race was cap­tured by the Ger­man filmmaker/propagandist Leni Riefen­stahl in her famous film doc­u­ment­ing the 1936 Games, Olympia. It’s all queued up above and ready to go.

Now the cru­el foot­note to this sto­ry: after his four vic­to­ries, Owens returned to the U.S. and imme­di­ate­ly con­front­ed the cold racist atti­tudes of his coun­try­men. There was no pause, no reprieve, even for an Olympic gold medal­ist. Lat­er, he recalled:

When I came back to my native coun­try, after all the sto­ries about Hitler, I could­n’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I could­n’t live where I want­ed. I was­n’t invit­ed to shake hands with Hitler, but I was­n’t invit­ed to the White House to shake hands with the Pres­i­dent, either.

New York City did hold a tick­er-tape parade in his hon­or. But when he attend­ed a recep­tion at the Wal­dorf-Asto­ria, he was forced to ride the freight ele­va­tor. And he did­n’t make it to the White House until Eisen­how­er named him an “Ambas­sador of Sports” in 1955. FDR and Tru­man nev­er both­ered to extend an invi­ta­tion to the Olympic hero. Stephen elab­o­rates on all of this below:

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