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Jesse Owens secretly wore German shoes at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin

Domagoj Valjak

The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin wас the first widely televised event in history. These Olympics will always be known because of Adolf Hitler’s intention to turn the international sports event into a showcase of Aryan racial supremacy.

Hitler’s architects had built a colossal 100 thousand-seat track and field stadium, six new gymnasiums and several small arenas to advertise the grandeur of the Nazi Germany.

The Nazi regime organized the mass displays of Nazi propaganda and nationalist symbols across Germany during the events Photo Credit

The Nazi regime organized the mass displays of Nazi propaganda and nationalist symbols across Germany during the events Photo Credit

Although German athletes were very successful at the Olympics, the absolute icon of the event was Jesse Owens, an African American who won international praise by winning four gold medals: in 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4 x 100 meter relay. Owens was a son of a sharecropper and a grandson of a slave, his existential situation was harsh and he had no sponsors. Still, he managed to beat everyone and display his unbelievable talent.

Jesse Owens at start of record breaking 200 meter race during the Olympic games 1936 in Berlin

Jesse Owens at start of record breaking 200 meter race during the Olympic games 1936 in Berlin

Adolf “Adi” Dassler founded the iconic sports company Adidas in 1924. In 1936 he wanted to use the Summer Olympics to advertise his sports company, and wanted to provide athletes from all over the world with his equipment.

Dassler and his friend ,Jo Waitzer, the coach of the German team, decided that they would offer their specially designed running footwear to as many contestants as possible, including Jesse Owens.

Owens performing the long jump at the Olympics  Photo Credit

Owens performing the long jump at the Olympics  Photo Credit

Dassler and Waitzer were aware of the danger of an African American contestant wearing German shoes. African Americans were targets of Hitler’s vile ideology, and Adidas would easily become a target of severe repercussions from the Nazi government. Still, Dassler and Waitzer disregarded the possible dangers concerning the promotion of their product, and they approached Owens at the Olympic village and offered him the special shoes that were designed and crafted by Dassler himself.

Runners carrying the Olympic Flame Photo Credit

Runners carrying the Olympic Flame Photo Credit

Owens was amazed by the shoes, which had long hand-forged spikes and were made of resilient leather. He said that he would either wear these shoes or no shoes while competing. He wore the shoes when he won his medals and officially became one of the greatest athletes in history.

After the first victory ceremony, Hitler came to the podium and congratulated only the German athletes. International spectators reacted to this with reproach, and Hitler decided not to approach the podium to greet the winners for the rest of the event. Contrary to the popular belief, Hitler in fact never refused to shake hands with Owens. He decided not to greet any winners after the first victory ceremony.

Jesse Owens on the podium after winning the long jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics. L-R, Naoto Tajima, Owens, Lutz Long  Photo Credit

Jesse Owens on the podium after winning the long jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics. L-R, Naoto Tajima, Owens, Lutz Long  Photo Credit

The press of the time reported that Hitler gave Owens a brief salute when Owens passed by his spectator box. Owen himself stated that Hitler never expressed a negative reaction; sadly, Roosevelt, the American president of the time, was the one who disappointed Owens:

“Hitler didn’t snub me – it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram”.

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Owens will always be remembered as an international icon of pride and perseverance, and Adi Dassler will be forever known as a man who didn’t let the vile Nazi ideology get in the way of his marketing efforts. Dassler’s company went on to become one of the best sports equipment companies in the world. At the same time, Dassler’s older brother Rudi founded Puma, another successful company that is still among the giants of sports equipment.