How Jesse Owens Beat Hitler in German Running Shoes

Jesse Owens close-up 1936
Image credit: Acme News Photos / Public domain

The Olympic Games are finally upon us. After a full year’s postponement due to COVID-19, the Tokyo games kicked off last Friday. As disruptive as the COVID delay has been, the world’s largest sporting event is no stranger to turmoil. Historic upheavals have led to cancellations and violence at past games, although not every disruption has been negative. What’s more, one such famous case involves an intriguing but little-known footwear subplot.

The images of Jesse Owens winning gold at the 1936 Olympics are some of the most iconic photographs in history and Owens’ performance ranks among the greatest achievements in sport. The story is well-known: Hitler had intended for the extravagant Berlin games to demonstrate Aryan racial superiority, only for Owens — a Black athlete who was the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave — to beat the competition and claim four gold medals, along with several broken records.

Jesse Owens saluting on the 1936 Berlin Olympic podium
Image credit: German Federal Archives / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

While Hitler was furious, it’s worth noting that much of the German public adored Owens. Among these fans were two men who would make their own mark on history via a famed rivalry and the creation of two of the world’s largest sports brands.

But all of that came later. Before their fallout and the Berlin Olympics, there was the small Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach. It’s here that two brothers, Rudolf (Rudi) and Adolf (Adi) Dassler formed the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Factory in 1924. It started as a DIY operation, with the brothers experimenting with various designs and materials in their mother’s laundry room and even building their own machines. They started making football and running shoes, which the more outgoing Rudi sold while his shyer brother, Adi, took care of production. It wasn’t easy going, and after Hilter rose to power, the brothers joined the Nazi party in order to keep their business afloat. 

Fortuitously, however, the Dasslers were friends with Josef Waitzer, a former athlete who had become the German athletic coach for the Olympics. Their relationship with Waitzer allowed the Dasslers to offer their shoes to a range of new athletes, and when the 1936 Olympics came around, they sought to promote their product to as many athletes as possible. Among them was Jesse Owens. 

Jesse Owens sprinting
Image credit: / Public domain

Despite the dangers of offering a Black athlete German-made shoes under Nazi rule, the Dassler’s approached Owens in the Olympic village. Owens was apparently amazed by their purpose-built product  — which was made from durable leather and featured long, hand-made spikes — and agreed to use them in competition, saying he would wear them or no shoes at all. 

When Owens went on to win in such a spectacular fashion, it was a windfall for everyone involved. Moreover, it meant that to add insult to injury, Owens not only beat Hitler on his own turf but did so in a pair of German-made shoes.

Jesse Owens doing long jump in German-made shoes
Image credit: German Federal Archives / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

The story of the Dasslers doesn’t end here, though. As their business went from strength to strength in the wake of their Olympic success, their relationship suffered. The brothers grew apart to the point where they split from one another to set up competing sporting goods companies on either side of the Aurach River in Herzogenaurach. The names of those two companies? Puma and Adidas. The full story of the Dassler brothers and their respective brands is best saved for another time and the precise nature of their fall-out remains something of a mystery. 

The good news is that Jesse Owens doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it. Having sprinted his way to victory and into the history books while wearing their running shoes, it’s hard to imagine that the Dasslers felt anything but elation about Owens getting that gold.

Man engraving Jesse Owens' name
Image credit: Joe Haupt / CC BY-SA 2.0