After Michael Phelps captured his record-setting 19th Olympic medal earlier this week, publications started declaring the swimmer the greatest Olympian of all time. Others, like ESPN's Michael Wilbon, quickly put Phelps's achievements in historical context and put other athletes ahead of him. Wilbon argued that Carl Lewis was the greatest Olympian ever for his dominance and longevity in track and field, and that Jesse Owens was perhaps the most important. Owens won four Olympic medals in front of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi empire at a time when Germany was discriminating against Jews and declaring the supremacy of the Aryan race. In the United States, Jim Crow laws were still in effect. Owens performed in the midst of all of that, and won with grace.
In the PBS show American Experience, a number of experts weigh in on the importance of Jesse Owens's accomplishments. Here are ten facts about Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics that you might not have known, as taken from that show, Jeremy Schaap's book Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics, articles by Jeremy Schaap, and an article by William C. Rhoden.
10. Leading up to the Games, there were concerns about the Nazi philosophy and the rule of Adolf Hitler. As news came out about Hitler’s prejudices and policies, Owens stated, "If there are minorities in Germany who are being discriminated against, the United States should withdraw from the 1936 Olympics." Owens was coached to back off such statements and seize his moment in competition. (For more read, "An Olympic Boycott That Almost Worked," by Jeremy Schaap)