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)
9. Owens was the first black captain of an Ohio State University sports team. He earned that title at a time when black athletes were not allowed to live on campus.
8. Before the 1935 Big Ten Championship, Owens fell down some stairs and hurt his back. He was advised to withdraw. He set world records in the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard hurdles, and the broad jump—and tied the world record in the 100-yard dash. That moment marked his rise to becoming an Olympic favorite.
7. Before the Olympics, Owens began losing races to Eulace Peacock. The AP selected Peacock as the favorite for the gold in Berlin, but Peacock was injured before the Games and did not compete. (For more read, "A Rival for Owens, and Questions of What If," by William C. Rhoden)
6. Owens was one of eight blacks out of 383 United States athletes headed to the Games. (For more, read "Owens Remains the Ultimate Olympian," by Jeremy Schaap)
5. Owens said he would win three events: the 100 meters, the 200 meters, and the broad jump.
4. Here is a quote from the writer Guy Walters, speaking on American Experience, about how those in Hitler's Nazi administration thought of Owens. "We've got, you know, people like Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, looking at Jesse Owens, and he says, you know, quite openly, I think it's unfair, to have people like Jesse Owens competing, because you might as well have deer or gazelle on your team."
3. When Jesse Owens won the 100 meters with a world record equaling time of 10.3 seconds, Adolf Hitler refused to congratulate Owens. "Do you really think," the German leader said, "I will allow myself to be photographed shaking hands with a Negro?"
2. When Owens won the long jump, the blond-haired German competitor he defeated, Luz Long, hugged Owens and they walked arm and arm around the stadium together.
1. Owens and another sprinter Ralph Metcalfe replaced two Jewish runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, who were taken off of the 4x100 relay team. At first, Owens refused, but he was told he must compete. He did. After he won his fourth medal, he told friends, “"I feel bad for Marty and Sam."
For more about Jesse Owens before, during, and after the 1936 Olympics, watch Jesse Owens: American Experience and read Jeremy Schaap's book Triumph: Jesse Owens and the Untold Story of Hitler's Olympics.