NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Caroline
A young man, Jesse Owens (Stephen James) is running through the streets of Cleveland, OH. He runs through the slums and into a rundown neighborhood home. He gets to packing his bags as he is getting ready to move out of his parents' home. He hunts around for his only shirt while his mom, proud of her first boy going off to college, finishes tailoring a nice suit coat for him. Jesse is afraid it is too expensive, but she insists and says he was meant to do great things. He says goodbye to his dad and gives him an envelope with $2.
In a large college stadium, a track race is going on, and things aren't looking so great for coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Ohio State loses the meet and radio commentators are wondering if coach Snyder is concerned about his job because he hasn't had any national wins while at Ohio State. Larry goes to his office on campus, upset and cranky, and his secretary comes in with his day's appointments and files of "fresh blood" - all potential track stars and Jesse Owens is among the files.
Jesse's next stop before getting on the bus to Ohio State is to see his girlfriend, Ruth (Shanice Banton), and their little girl. Ruth works at a salon and Jesse's appearance warrants a stern look from her boss. Jesse says things are going to be better, and he's going to come back and marry Ruth. Jesse's friend, Dave (Eli Goree) - also headed to Ohio State, tells Jesse to hurry and get on the bus. Jesse says goodbye and gets on the bus (in the colored section), and they are off.
At the school, Dave and Jesse are jogging on the track while Larry times him. After their workout Dave and Jesse head to the locker room and are about to hit the shower when the football team walks in. They toss around racial slurs and force Dave and Jesse to let the football team shower first. Jesse, not wanting to get in trouble, accepts this as his lot, though Dave is upset. While they are waiting, a young man tells Jesse that coach Larry wants to see him. Sweaty and gross, and unable to shower, Jesse throws on his clothes and heads to Larry's office.
At the office, Larry greets him, but Jesse won't look him in the eye. Jesse is also surprised when Larry invites him to sit in the chair opposite him. After some small talk about past victories coach, Larry asks if Jesse can work and that he's got to work on his manners because he should be looking a man in the eye when he's talking to them. Jesse says he can work, and his records should speak to that. Larry says records don't mean shit because some kid will come along and take those records away from you. Medals are what count. Jesse notices a picture of an Olympic team and asks if it is indeed. Larry says yes, it is the Olympic track team from Paris, 1924. But Larry wasn't there. He asks if Jesse will go to Berlin in 1936. Jesse wants to, and coach says that he needs commitment: when not in class Jesse is to be on the track. "You belong to me."
Out on the track, the coaches are watching the "fresh blood" and coach Larry says Jesse is good. They time him on the 100-meter dash and, while his starting position is crap, he's fast (9. something seconds). The coaches are impressed.
In New York, the US Olympic Committee is having a meeting. They are concerned about the rumors coming out of Germany and are debating whether or not to boycott the 1936 games in Berlin. They eventually agree to send a delegate to Berlin to assess the situation and make sure the Nazis play fair. They decide to send Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), who is somewhat reluctant but wants to move forward with the games and doesn't put a lot of stock into the rumors about the Germans and their "Jewish problem" and racial discrimination.
Back at Ohio State, Jesse is training hard. In a letter back to Ruth he talks about a job he found at a fill station, and how hard it is to keep up with practice, work, and school, but he's doing it. He's sent $2 and talks about having applied for a marriage license.
Coach catches up with Jesse and is frustrated that he's been missing practice. Jesse explains that he's got to work his job to take care of his baby girl. Larry is surprised at the news. "You didn't tell me you had a daughter." "You didn't ask."
In Berlin, Avery is escorted to the stadium, currently under construction, and sees Jews being tossed from their homes, loaded onto trucks, and signs everywhere that say "Germans defend yourself" and other anti-semitic propaganda. At the sports club, he meets Dr. Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), a couple of other Olympics officials, and Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten). Ms. Riefenstahl was handpicked by the Fuhrer to film the proceedings at the Olympics (the first time it will have been recorded, it was a big deal). Avery starts in on what the Olympics would look like without American involvement, and the Nazis are very keen on appeasing the Americans. It isn't a problem with facilities, but with politics. Avery accuses them of using the Olympics to sell their nasty ideas about Jews and non-Aryan races. A deal is struck, the press will be reigned in, anti-Jew signs taken down, and they'll stop shipping people out of their homes.
Back in Ohio, Jesse goes to coach Larry's office where Larry gives Jesse a legislative paige ID. The job gets $60 a month, and all Jesse has to do for the job is train. Win-win.
Jesse's training starts in earnest, and coach starts training him to start low and improve his form and cadence. After practice, the team hits the showers, and the football team walks in. After having distracted Jesse in practice, the coach provokes them into hurling horrible insults to teach Jesse a lesson: block it out. He gets the message loud and clear. He celebrates later with some friends, all egging each other into a jumping contest. Jesse gets cocky and jumps over a pole but falls and hurts himself. Coach is upset with him, but tell him to rest for three days, and maybe he will be able to compete in Ann Arbor.
Three days later, it is the Big 10 of 1935 in Ann Arbor, MI. Jesse is obviously hurt but insists on competing. If his back doesn't make it through the 100-yard, dash coach can pull him. He takes his place on the track, amidst loud boos from the crowd, but he blocks it out. He takes first with 9.3 seconds on coach's watch. The officials won't accept the New World Record (NWR) and insist his time was 9.4. Coach is pissed, but Jesse shakes it off and moves on. He goes to do the broad jump and scopes out the track. He asks an official what the world record is, then asks for a handkerchief and sets it at the world record line. He makes the jump.... and sets a NWR! Next up is 200-yard dash: he sets a NWR. He competes in the hurdles: another NWR. By now the crowd is going nuts and cheering for him. On the drive home, he is excited about the wins. Coach tells him that he also set a new school record for most points earned in a meet. "Which cracker did I take that from?" "This cracker" coach says. "Well, you know what they say about records. Some kid will come along and snatch it away from you." Jesse quotes back Larry's own words.
June 25th, 1935, Ohio State is competing in Los Angeles, and the guy they need to watch out for is Eulace Peacock (Shamier Anderson). The press is waiting for the team when the bus pulls up, and the press asks how it feels to be the world's fastest human. Must feel great because Jesse smokes the competition in L.A.
Jesse, Dave, and another friend go to a jazz club after the race. A girl in a pink dress, Quincella, comes in. The guys don't think Jesse has a chance getting her, but to their surprise, she knows who he is and approaches him first. She's got trouble written all over her, but Jesse falls hard.
In Germany, Avery is following up with his requests for the Berlin Olympics. Things look "swell" and he pledges his support. He is also present with a business opportunity: he is a builder, and the Nazis want him to build the new German Embassy in Washington DC. It would be a huge deal, and they insist to Avery that this is not a bribe, but a securing of the best builder in America for their project. He points out some design problems, and appears to accept the deal.
In Nebraska, Jesse, with Quincella, receives a telegram. Apparently Ruth has seen that Jesse and Quincella are cuddly and close, and she's angry and is threatening to sue Jesse. He is distracted at his track meet and loses to Eulace Peacock. Coach comes by to talk over what happened. Jesse is curt and in the middle of a pity party and says he was just having a bad day. They get talking about relationships, and Jesse asks if Larry was ever married. Larry says he is currently separated from his wife, and his daughter is almost grown. His focus was on coaching, not his family. Jesse says "You never told me you had a daughter." "You never asked." When the team loads up the bus to head back to Ohio, Quincella shows up and is getting ready to follow the team and drive Jesse back to Ohio. He loads her things into her car... and breaks up with her. She's ticked, and leaves quickly. Jesse says he's got some explaining to do back home.
Back at home, Jesse goes into the salon where Ruth works and apologizes. And proposes marriage. She shuts him down. He goes outside and waits all day in the rain for her to get off of work. She scolds him for missing races; he says he'd rather miss races and work at a gas station if it meant he got to spend his days with her. He proposes again and wants to get married that day, and this time, she agrees. He runs off to find someone to perform the wedding for them.
Back in New York, the US Olympic committee is there to vote. Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) says that they need to vote against participating in the games, that a vote against participation is a vote against tyranny. Avery encourages everyone to vote for the dream of participating, thinking of the athletes and the chances this could ruin for them. In the end, the vote is close, 58 in favor of going, 56 in favor of a boycott.
In Ohio, a representative of the NAACP comes to the Owens' home to try and talk Jesse into not going to Berlin, only because they need to show the Nazi's that their discrimination in intolerable. Jesse's father disagrees, but believes that the choice should be Jesse's. Jesse asks if the representative runs. He doesn't. Jesse explains that on the track race is the last thing that matters. It is just fast or slow, and in that there is freedom.
Back at the school, everyone is listening to a boxing fight, a Nazi fighter vs. an American fighter. In the end, the Nazi fighter wins. Coach says that at least in three week's time they'd be beating the Nazis at the Olympics. Jesse says he's not sure he's going. Coach is livid and can't understand how he would give up the chance to be a part of history. He says race doesn't matter, but Jesse says he can say that because coach is white.
At the track that night coach Larry is drinking and upset. He stupidly decides to go for a broad jump and hurts himself.
The next morning, Jesse is on a jog when Larry catches up with him in his car. He gets out, using a cane, and encourages Jesse to give himself the option to go to Berlin by at least going to the Olympic Trials.
At the Olympic trials, Jesse qualifies for three events. At the press meet, the topic keeps veering from the sport and to the politics. Two of the track team are Jewish, and then there is Jesse and Dave. How can they participate given the discrimination abroad and at home. It isn't a pretty press meet. Afterward, coach Larry tries to get the Olympic coaches to bring him on as an additional coach for Jesse. They won't have any of it.
On the way back to his hotel, Jesse runs into Eulace Peacock. He tore his hamstring and is never going to run again. He says to go to Berlin just to stick it to Hitler. At the hotel, Jesse is having a hard time sleeping and wakes Ruth. He is worried that he will lose, and then Hitler will be right. She tells him to stop thinking, he's not very good at it, and to just run. The next morning he packs up, gets a special locket (to keep him focused on his girl), and he takes a small lock of his daughter's hair. On the boat he turns when coach Larry starts talking to him. He's glad that coach is there. When Larry goes to leave Jesse stops him because he's headed in the wrong direction. "Everyone is up there in first class." "On my own dime? I'm in steerage with you and Dave."
In Berlin, Ms. Riefenstahl is showing the Olympic committee the beginnings of her promotional movie. She asks for no restrictions; she wants to film every event, and she needs 46 cameras. Dr. Goebbels reminds her that these are his games. She reminds him that this is her film. Without it no one would remember the games a year from then.
The American team arrives in Berlin and are given the royal treatment. Marty and Sam wave their David's Stars in the faces of some of the Nazi security guards, and everyone is a little surprised when there are no colored dorms or tables. Everyone sits together. Dave suggests that the Nazis aren't so bad. Sam and Marty aren't so sure.
Ms. Riefenstahl shows her finished film of the running of the torch, and Dr. Goebbels loves it. Ms. Riefenstahl is encouraged.
Jesse and Dave set out to train and get ready for the games, but the US team coaches are awful and racist. Coach Larry catches up with Jesse later and asks "Did you really tell Dean he's not fit to train fleas on a dog?" He did. They are ambushed by the other coaches to try to settle the dispute. Dean insists on an apology. Jesse insists on Coach Larry or he's not competing, hope they like singing the German national anthem. The relent, and Coach Larry is instigated as a coach. Larry says this is a twisted way to thank him; medals would be better. He asks Jesse about his new shoes, but Jesse says they never showed up.
Coach Larry goes looking for the shoe shop where the shoes (from London) were supposed to come from. He gets totally turned around (he doesn't know any German) and ends up walking up on a group of Nazi soldiers forcing a Jewish family into a military truck. He's finally able to communicate to one of the soldiers that he's an American, has papers, is with the Olympic team, and is looking for a shoe place. The guy guides him off, though Larry can't stop looking back at the truck.
The morning of the Olympic competitions, Larry can't stop fussing over Jesse. Jesse, on the other hand, is totally cool and calm. They start off for the stadium, which is huge, filled with people, and has a zeppelin flying overhead. Everyone stands as Hitler comes into the stadium. Jesse gets his new shoes on, looks at the picture of his wife in the locket, and then prepares the track. He wins the 100-meter dash and easily gets his first gold. Avery congratulates him, then takes him to go meet someone special (it is custom for the hosting dignitary to do a meet and greet with gold medalists). He escorts Jesse through the middle of several dozen high-ranking Nazi officials. They meet Dr. Goebbel, who doesn't even look at Jesse. They are informed that, in order to avoid the traffic home, Hitler had to leave early and will not be meeting Jesse. At least, that's what the translator says, Goebbels really asks how Hitler could be expected to shake hands with "that." Aver is livid.
The American team has a small party to unwind for the day. Jesse catches a glimpse of the famous broad jumper, Carl 'Luz' Long (David Kross). He's the guy to beat in the broad jumping as he holds all of the records in Europe. Larry goes over the strict rules they have about broad jumping for these games, though Jesse seems a little distracted.
At the qualifying event, the next day Luz easily qualifies. Jesse, up next, goes to scope out the track like he did in Ann Arbor, but gets fouled when he steps over the line trying to get a good look at the rack. It is counted at his first attempt. His "second" attempt is also red flagged when he doesn't jump at just the right moment. Luz, seeing this, grabs a towel and places it at the side of the jumping lane so Jesse will know where to jump from. Jesse qualifies on his third attempt. He catches up with Luz and thanks him for the help.
In the end, the broad jump comes down to Luz and Jesse. Luz does well, per his normal, but then Jesse passes him with a distance of 7.74 meters. On his second jump, Luz makes it to 7.78 meters, a new European record. Jesse takes his second jump: 7.94 meters! Luz goes for his third attempt, but stumbles at the last second and fouls out of the last attempt. The game is in the bag for Jesse; he doesn't need the last attempt, but Luz insists he do his best. On his third jump, Jesse lands an 8.60-meter jump, a new Olympic record! After the medals are awarded, and anthems played, Luz suggests they take the lap of honor together. This is career suicide for Luz, as he goes around the track arm in arm with Jesse. Ms. Riefenstahl's cameraman asks what Luz is doing; his career is over! She says he's making her film.
At the end of the day, Jesse gets beers and takes them to Luz's room. They sit and chat for a while. Jesse says Luz's girlfriend is pretty, are their any ugly girls in Germany? Luz says yes, they just keep the ugly things hidden. He talks about a lot of the awful stuff the government is doing, and talks about a girl that had been sent to his room the night before on orders to get pregnant. Jesse asks if Luz is going to get in trouble for the stunt he pulled earlier int he day... Luz tells Jesse to win the 200-meter dash. Not for any political agendas, but for Luz. It would make losing to Jesse that day a little easier to swallow.
The next day, everyone back home is gathered around radios to listen to the broadcast of Jesse's last race. In Berlin, however, Ms. Riefenstahl's team is not set up or ready to roll cameras. They've been ordered not to film the race. She sends them out, quickly, and they hurry to their posts and getting rolling just in time. She goes to the big-wig box with Dr. Geobbel and Hitler and points a camera right at them rather than at the race. She's going to catch their reaction as Jesse easily wins his third gold medal.
After the race, Avery and Ms. Riefenstahl find themselves alone with Dr. Geobbel. She went to insist that the good doctor not tells her crew what to do. Dr. Geobbel asks her to translate for him as he talks about being a good party guest to Avery. He makes it known that the host (the Nazis) are offended that their guests have not treated them with respect and tells Avery that the Jewish boys (Marty and Sam) can't run in the 400-meter relay race. Avery basically says the hell they can't, but Goebbels reminds him of the business deal they have. How would the US Olympic committee feel about Avery's endorsement of the Berlin games if they knew about the business deal they had? Avery caves.
The US team holds a quick meeting, claiming that the Germans have been holding back their better runners and that they are now afraid that they need to change up the lineup. Sam and Marty are out, Dave and Jesse are in. Sam and Marty call bull, they know it is about the fact that they are Jewish. Jesse doesn't want to run and the team is at an apparent stalemate.
At the fencing arena, Coach Larry is sitting thinking when Jesse joins him. They get to talking, and coach talks about flying airplanes. He says that what spectators like most is not the thrill of the takeoff and flight, but of the potential crash and the ensuing carnage. Turns out he crashed his plane before the '24 Olympics, and woke up three weeks after the crash with a newspaper clipping about the gold medal winners. His dad called him some kind of idiot for blowing his chances at the Olympics. He gives Jesse the clipping and leaves. Jesse opens it and sees that across the news story is written "Next Time". That evening Sam and Marty go to Jesse's room and tell him not to lose the relay race, giving him permission to run it.
That next day, at the relay race, the team sets a new world record: 39.8 seconds. Hitler didn't even show up for the race.
Jesse is packing up his room, and his FOUR gold medals (a big deal as it was something that had not been done in decades), when coach Larry comes in. He looks one of the medals over and smiles, proud of Jesse. Ms. Riefenstahl shows up and asks Jesse for a favor. She wants to film him doing the broad jump. After a few takes he asks if this isn't cheating, it won't be the real jump in her film. She says it is so that people will never forget what he did.
Back home coach Larry, his secretary Peggy, and Jesse and Ruth Owens are going to a special, formal dinner held in Jesse's honor. Sadly, they party is stopped, and Jesse and Ruth are told they will have to use the service entrance. Larry is ready to go to war over this, but Jesse calms him down, and they go to the service entrance while Larry goes through the front door. When they get to the service elevator, a young fan (a white kid) asks for Jesse's autograph.
While the last scene plays out captions about what became of the people in the movie are played:
In September of 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began. Luz was forced into military service and sent to the front lines. He and Jesse remained friends and in contact up until Luz was killed in action.
People lined the streets to welcome Jesse home though the White House never publicly acknowledged Jesse and his accomplishments.
Larry Snyder continued coaching at Ohio State until he retired. Several of his athletes went on to be major record holders. He went to the Olympics in Rome in 1960 as the track coach.
Jesse and Ruth had three daughters and were married until his death in 1980. Jesse was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.