On June 19, 1936, six weeks before the Opening Ceremony of the Games of the XI Olympiad in Berlin, a washed-up former heavyweight champion named Max Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis, the top-ranked contender who had seemed indestructible.
It was big news, a propaganda boon for the Third Reich, which had never embraced Schmeling because everyone, even the Germans, assumed Louis would crush him. But Schmeling had detected a flaw in Louis' style -- he would drop his guard after throwing a jab -- and made the American suffer for his sloppiness. Unexpectedly, the world heavyweight championship, the biggest prize in sports, was within the grasp of a citizen of Hitler's Germany, and the most prominent black athlete on the planet had suffered a humiliating defeat.
Black Americans, in particular, felt the sting of Schmeling's punches; in Louis, they had a black heavyweight who had been given the chance to prove his superiority in the ring and had demonstrated an unmatched combination of power and skill until that night at Yankee Stadium. Twenty-one years had passed since Jack Johnson lost the title to Jess Willard and even black Americans were ambivalent about Li'l Arthur, with his flashy cars and white women. But Louis was different, quiet and strong and uncontroversial, and now he had been humbled. Disappointment floated in the air from Harlem to Watts.
Remember, it was 11 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major professional sports. There were no blacks in the NFL and the NBA had not yet been created. Louis was the idol of black America, while 22-year-old track star Jesse Owens was a distant No. 2.
It was against this backdrop that Owens boarded the S.S. Manhattan in New York in July, bound for Bremerhaven on Germany's North Sea coast. He shared Room 87 on Deck D with his Ohio State teammate, gifted high jumper Dave Albritton. For Owens and Albritton and the other half dozen black men on the team, everything was at stake. Winning at the Olympics might give them entrée into a world from which they were otherwise barred. Lose, and there was little hope.
In Germany, Owens, Albritton, Ralph Metcalfe, Archie Williams, Jimmy LuValle, John Woodruff, Cornelius Johnson and Mack Robinson (Jackie's older brother) were all believed to be something less than human, lower even than Jews on the evolutionary scale. Jews were dangerous because they were considered cunning and greedy; blacks were considered inferior intellectually, unevolved.
Owens and his teammates very nearly didn't make the trip. Only by the slimmest of margins had the Amateur Athletic Union decided not to boycott the 1936 Olympics, which were awarded to Germany before Hitler came to power. Now that the Americans were there, they were determined to dominate the track competition, the heart and soul of the Olympics.
Owens, of course, did just that. Even as the German papers tried to diminish him (in Der Angriff, he was merely the leader of America's "African auxiliaries") and American writers condescendingly celebrated him (Grantland Rice had him front and center in a "Darktown parade"), Owens ripped up the record book.
He crushed the competition in the 100- and 200-meter events, set an Olympic record in the long jump that wouldn't be broken until 1960 and led off the 400 relay team that set a world record that would stand until 1956. No one since, not even Carl Lewis in 1984, has put on quite as spectacular a show.
The spirits of black Americans were lifted and, for the first time, a black American became a hero to white America. Before Louis and Willie Mays and Bill Russell and Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, there was Owens, the embodiment of grace and giftedness. It didn't matter whether Hitler shook his hand or what Joseph Goebbels had to say about the inferiority of his race, Owens was the master of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Even now, 115 years after the modern revival of the Greeks' ancient competition, he remains the ultimate Olympian.
A second-class citizen at home, a subhuman in Germany, Jesse Owens fashioned the greatest of all sports achievements. To be clear, nothing he did at Olympic Stadium could prevent the horrors to come. He saved no lives. However, for those paying close attention, Owens revealed essential truths in Berlin.
While western democracies were perfecting the art of appeasement and much of the rest of the world kowtowed to the Nazis, Owens stood up to them at their own Olympics, refuting their venomous theories with his awesome deeds.
Jeremy Schaap is an ESPN anchor and national correspondent, based in New York since 1998. He is a best-selling author ("Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History") and a contributor to "E:60", "ABC World News Tonight" and "Nightline."