75 years ago Jesse Owens became the first athlete to win his fourth olympic gold medal. You might think: the Jesse Owens’ story has been told a hundred times. Read on and you will get some insights you don’t want to miss; insights about Jesse Owens – the unassuming black runner from Ohio who came to Berlin, saw and conquered.
Owens won the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump and the 4×100 meter relay. We can watch the grainy newsreels today and still perceive the classic cleanliness of his sprinting, the élan of his jumping, his superiority over his rivals, his composure and his sportsmanship. Jesse Owens was an exceptional athlete, not just then, in 1936, but forever.
Adi Dassler wanted his shoes to be worn by as many athletes as possible in Berlin
Somehow (there are several versions to describe how, none of which is authenticated), Adi Dassler got Jesse Owens to wear Dassler shoes, crafted by Adi’s own hands. Under the hateful prevailing political circumstances, there was clearly a certain risk involved in giving German products to an African-American, a man likely to run faster than Germans on their own ground and whose skin colour was the target of vile propaganda.
Adi Dassler wanted his shoes to be worn by as many athletes as possible in Berlin, without distinction, but he had no marketing or promotional apparatus even to make them aware of the virtues of his products. It had to be done by word of mouth, friendly contacts and personal persuasion.
Jo Waitzer was the coach of the German track team and a friend of Adi Dassler’s. The two men shared an interest in developing running shoes to improve the performances of the athletes in Waitzer’s charge. An advert for Dassler running shoes in the 1930s vaunted the merits of the Waitzer model, emphasising their anatomic form, elastic construction and proven durability. In return for Adi’s support, the coach was ready to distribute his shoes to as many athletes as he reasonably could – to friend and foe alike. This, remember, was an era when fair play was the alpha and omega of sport.
“Owens wanted those shoes or none at all”
The performances of Jesse Owens in the Olympic trials in the US had not escaped Adi Dassler’s keen attention as he scoured the newspapers in the weeks leading up to Berlin and he targeted Owens as a potential star of the Games. He asked Waitzer to get some shoes to Owens, but according to Franz Martz, the coach was reluctant: “He told Adi he couldn’t do that, there would be hell to pay if the Nazis found out,” says Martz. “Waitzer was the one most in danger, but he got two or three pairs to Owens to try out. By the third pair, Owens was so convinced by them he said he wanted those shoes or none at all.”
The grainy footage from the Berlin stadium of Jesse Owens winning his bagful of gold shows him in plain white shoes for the 100 metres, but plain black in the other events. All were made of glove leather, reinforced in the heel and the toe, and with six long spikes. Adi Dassler was on record as having observed that “white shoes are not such good quality”, a doubtful reflection that Owens was able to refute emphatically.
Word soon got around that Jesse Owens, the fastest man alive, the biggest name in world sport, the Olympic champ par excellence, did what he did in shoes made by a guy from a small town in Germany that hardly anyone had ever heard of; a guy who wanted to help people perform well.
After the Olympics Owens sent a note of thanks to Adi – and his medal-winning shoes.