Jesse Owens: My Greatest Olympic Prize

In this RD Classic from our archives, American athlete Jesse Owens tells his stunning Olympic story about putting differences aside for the love of the Games.

Jesse Owens: My Greatest Olympic Prize Original art from Reader's Digest, October 1960
Jesse Owens amazed the world by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games—in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, the broad jump and the 400-meter relay. When this piece was originally published in October 1960, he was an extremely active member of the Illinois Youth Commission, which sponsors local committees “dedicated to keeping youngsters active in sports and out of mischief.” Luz Long, about whom he writes here, was killed in Sicily during World War II.

It was the summer of 1936. The Olympic Games were being held in Berlin. Because Adolf Hitler childishly insisted that his performers were members of a “master race,” nationalistic feelings were at an all-time high.

I wasn’t too worried about all this. I’d trained, sweated and disciplined myself for six years, with the Games in mind. While I was going over on the boat, all I could think about was taking home one or two of those gold medals. I had my eye especially on the running broad jump. A year before, as a sophomore at Ohio State University, I’d set the world’s record of 26 feet 8-1/4 inches. Everyone kind of expected me to win that Olympic event hands down.

I was in for a surprise. When the time came for the broad-jump trials, I was startled to see a tall boy hitting the pit at almost 26 feet on his practice leaps! He turned out to be a German named Luz Long. I was told that Hitler had kept him under wraps, evidently hoping to win the jump with him.

I guessed that if Long won, it would add some new support to the Nazis’ Aryan-superiority theory. After all, I am a Negro. A little hot under the collar about Hitler’s ways, I determined to go out there and really show Der Fuhrer and his master race who was superior and who wasn’t.

An angry athlete is an athlete who will make mistakes, as any coach will tell you. I was no exception. On the first of my three qualifying jumps, I leaped from several inches beyond the take-off board for a foul. On the second jump, I fouled even worse. “Did I come 3000 miles for this?” I thought bitterly. “To foul out of the trials and make a fool of myself?”

Below: An amazing look at Owens and Long competing at the 1936 Berlin Games:

NEXT: Owens’ dramatic story concludes, with more rare, historic video »

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