In Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, African-Americans weren’t supposed to win gold medals.
Neither were Jews, nor any other person of a race that wasn’t Aryan.
Especially not on German soil.
But that’s exactly what happened on this day in 1936, when Jesse Owens shot to worldwide fame by winning the 100 metre sprint at the Berlin Olympics.
At the time in Nazi Germany, Hitler had been promoting his dangerous belief that Aryans were the ‘master race’ designed to rule the rest of humanity.
By his logic, the best athletes at the Berlin Olympics should have been tall, fair-haired and light-eyed Europeans.
In other words, nothing like Owens.
When the 22-year-old sharecroppers’ son from Alabama took his position on the race track, he was surrounded by swastika flags, Nazi merchandise and white supremacists, including Hitler.
After the gun went off, Owens shocked the crowd by making it to the finish line with a record-equalling 10.3 seconds, defeating his US teammate Ralph Metcalfe and Dutch sprinter Tinus Osendarp.
Many spectators were stunned.
Germany had been awarded the Olympic Games in 1931 as part of the country’s reintegration into the international community after World War I.
Hitler, who was initially sceptical of the Olympics, assumed power two years later and eventually decided that hosting the Games would be a useful way to spread Nazi propaganda.
At first, the Nazi party’s newspaper, the Volkischer Beobachter, called for Jewish athletes to be banned from competing.
The move outraged the International Olympic Committee, which threatened to move the Games to another country until Hitler intervened to assure them Jews would be allowed to compete.
In the event, the German team included just one half-Jewish competitor, Helene Mayer. She won a silver medal in fencing.
The German media’s treatment of black athletes was harsh – one paper labelled Owens and other medal winners “black auxiliaries” of the US team.
This is despite Owens breaking world records in the 200 metre race, the long jump and the 4×100 metres relay.
His four athletics gold medals at one Olympics games would only be matched by American track and field athlete Carl Lewis 48 years later, and then at the Soviet-boycotted Los Angeles Olympics.
Owens is remembered for being “perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history”.