Such a performance would have been perfectly in character, but it didn't happen. William J. Baker, Owens's biographer, says the newspapers made up the whole story. Owens himself originally insisted it wasn't true, but eventually he began saying it was, apparently out of sheer boredom with the issue.
The facts are simple. Hitler did not congratulate Owens, but that day he didn't congratulate anybody else either, not even the German winners. As a matter of fact, Hitler didn't congratulate anyone after the first day of the competition. That first day he had shaken hands with all the German victors, but that had gotten him in trouble with the members of the Olympic Committee. They told him that to maintain Olympic neutrality, he would have to congratulate everyone or no one. Hitler chose to honor no one.
Hitler did snub a black American athlete, but it was Cornelius Johnson, not Jesse Owens. It happened the first day of the meet. Just before Johnson was to be decorated, Hitler left the stadium. A Nazi spokesman explained that Hitler's exit had been pre-scheduled, but no one believes that.
Several other misconceptions about the 1936 Olympics are prevalent. Not only was Owens not rebuffed by Hitler, Owens wasn't shunned by the German audience at the Berlin stadium either. Baker reports that Owens so captured the imagination of the crowd it gave him several ear-shattering ovations. Owens had been prepared for a hostile reception; a coach had warned him in advance not to be upset by anything that might happen in the stands."Ignore the insults," Owens was told,"and you'll be all right." Later Owens recalled that he had gotten the greatest ovations of his career at Berlin.
Another popular belief is that the games marked a humiliating moment for the Nazis because a few blacks walked away with a fistful of medals while Hitler had predicted the Teutonic lads would be the big winners, proof of the superman abilities of the white race. In reality, the competition was anything but a German humiliation. It is forgotten that Germany managed to pick up more medals than all the other countries combined. Hitler was pleased with the outcome.
This article was excerpted from Rick Shenkman's Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History. © Rick Shenkman