Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympic Games

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11226

"Race" can mean something you run, and sometimes means color or ethnicity. Both came together in 1936, when an African American runner beat the competition - and Hitler's hopes - while making history!



learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Everyone loves an underdog story, a story about someone who overcomes insurmountable odds to achieve greatness. One of the greatest underdog stories of all time involves an African American runner and his stance against Adolf Hitler and the whole Nazi party.

Let's find out how the 1936 Olympics challenged the Nazi party and disproved one of their most fundamental beliefs!

The 1936 Olympic games were unique because Americans were not just fighting for the gold — they were fighting to disprove hateful propaganda.

By 1936, Adolf Hitler's Nazi party had gained control of Germany and was actively discriminating and speaking hate against those who were disabled and who were not a part of the Aryan race.

The Aryan race was a term Hitler used to describe people who were Caucasian, Protestant, and of an Indo-European background.

Many disagreed with the way Hitler treated non-Aryan people but feared that getting involved would start a war. For years, many nations turned a blind eye to Hitler's terror and oppression.

The 1936 Olympics were slated to be held in Berlin, Germany.

The Olympic committee debated changing the location of the games and even thought about canceling the games altogether. Not only was there a lot of tension in Germany created by the Nazis, but many feared having the Olympics in Germany would show support for Hitler.

Ultimately, the Olympic committee decided to let individual countries decide whether they would participate in the Olympics. Some countries chose not to participate at all and boycotted the Olympics. Other countries strongly encouraged their athletes not to attend.

Olympic runner

Hitler tried to use the games to support his ideology that stated the Aryan race was superior to all other races. He believed only those belonging to the Aryan race would win at the Olympics.

When Hitler began spreading this propaganda, the United States began discouraging their athletes from attending the games. Athletes of Jewish descent and from different racial backgrounds were told they should not attend, as a means of standing up against Nazi oppression.

Jesse Owens, 1936

Image by Acme News Photos, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Jesse Owens was a famous African American runner. Many people tried to keep Owens from attending the Olympics, but Owens felt the best way to stand up to Hitler was to win, thereby disproving Hitler's theory about Aryan superiority.

During the Olympics, Owens ran in four events and won the gold medal in all four events!

1936 Olympic gold medal

Image by Darryl Bishop, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Not only did he earn four gold medals, but he also set new records, and was regarded as one of the fastest men in the world.

Hitler was upset that an African American was so successful at the Olympics and refused to shake Owens' hand during the medal ceremony.

Jesse Owens had made history for earning four gold medals, setting new track and field records, and disproving Hitler's theory of Aryan supremacy.

To see Jesse Owens win the gold medals, and learn more about the 1936 Olympic games, watch the videos below.

Jesse Owen's Gold Medal Moment: and an Unlikely Friendship from Team USA:

  • Did this underdog story inspire you?

It has inspired a lot of people. A 2016 movie, Race, told Owens' story. Watch a trailer for the movie below that includes real footage of Jesse Owens.

RACE - 'Meet Jesse Owens' Clip - In Theaters February 19 from Focus Features:

Move on to the Got It? section to review what you have learned about Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics games.

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