Lesson Plan

What Jesse Owens’s Story Tells Us About Sports and Politics – Mini Lesson


This short documentary video explores the intersection of sports, politics and race through the story of Jesse Owens, an African American track and field athlete who defied racial barriers and competed in the 1936 summer Olympic Games in Berlin.


Students will:

  • Examine the role of sports as a platform for challenging racial discrimination.
  • Discuss the impact of Owens’s achievements on the perceptions of race on the national and international stages.
  • U.S. History
  • World War II
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  • Race in America
  • Race in U.S. History
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

The 1936 summer Olympics took place in Nazi Germany, where Adolf Hitler was perpetrating the first stages of what would become the Holocaust. Hitler and the Nazi Party hoped to showcase the superiority of their Aryan athletes. But Jesse Owens, an African American track and field star, quickly disproved Nazi racial ideology of Aryan supremacy by winning four Olympic gold medals. Owens’s success in Berlin led to international acclaim, but at home, Owens continued to face discrimination because of his race.

The story of Jackie Robinson, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and more recently Colin Kaepernick, offer a lens through which to explore the complex relationships between sports, civil rights, and broader social and political change.

Sports and the ongoing fight for equal rights is well documented. This short film can launch further investigation into historical or contemporary examples of athletes who used their platform to raise awareness and effect change. Some examples are Muhammad Ali and Vietnam War protests, the Black power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the equal pay campaigns spearheaded by tennis star Billie Jean King in the 1970s and more recently by the United States Women’s National Soccer Team.

Essential Questions

  • In what ways do sports serve as a platform for addressing issues of racial or gender equality?
  • How were Owens’s achievements recognized on the international level, compared to his reception in the United States?

Lesson Procedure

This mini-lesson consists primarily of comprehension and discussion questions for students.

Questions for students:

  • How did Jesse Owens’s performance in the 1936 Olympics contradict the racial ideology promoted by Nazi Germany?
  • What impact did Jesse Owens’s success in the Olympics have on the perceptions of African Americans in the United States?
  • How did Owens’s achievements contribute to the discussions about racial discrimination and equality during the 1930s and 1940s?
  • In what ways can athletes use their platforms to address political or social issues?
  • In what ways does Jesse Owens’s story connect to more modern protests for equality?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "What Jesse Owens's Story Tells Us About Sports and Politics"Retro Report 
Luther King, Jr., and the Black Athlete Protest Tradition National Civil Rights Museum 
Black Athletes and Civil RightsFacing History & Ourselves 

Analyze multiple factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.

Identify the differences between historical facts and historical interpretations.

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Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com