Jesse Owens, 1936, courtesy of adidas communications.
It was seventy-three years ago this week, in the beautiful Olympic stadium in Berlin, that Jesse Owens won four Olympic gold medals: the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump and the 4 x 100 meters.
Jesse Owens is an American phenomenon. A gifted athlete, a man of his times, Owens was thrown into the middle of a propaganda war between democracy and fascism, in a world still fatigued from the first Great War. The ironic thing is, Jesse Owens was not treated well in the United States in the 1930s, he was the focal point of racism, as were most Black Ameicans of his generation. It does not make it better to say that it was part of the zeitgeist, but it was true. Jesse Owens was a black man in the United States. He was proud of being an American, but he must have felt frustrated, not being treated with the respect, he knew, as a human being, that he deserved.
Watching Jesse Owens run 10.3 in the final of the 100 meters in Berlin is mesmerizing seventy-three years after the fact (http://www.aipsmedia.com/index.php?page=news&cod=3777&tp=n).. I noticed how young Mr. Owens is in this film. He had set four world records at Ohio State that past spring on the same day–he was a tremendous athlete. But, to do the same on the world stage, in his first Olympics, was amazing and should add to his mantle as one of the greatest athletes of all times.
Was the 1936 Olympics some type of battle between fascism and democracy? The 1930’s were a time of great beauty and great ugliness. The Spanish Civil War, considered the testing site for the second world war, was nearly finished. By 1936, Hitler had complete control of Germany, and was pushing the tired old countries of Europe, assuring them that his requests for Austria, Czechaslovakia, etc. where just the last demands of a dictator with a Charlie Chaplin mustache and gaudy uniforms. A global depression was making it hard for most people to feed their families, much less worry about the rest of the world. America First, an organization encouraging the US to stay out of European troubles had support of nearly half of Americans by 1936, by 1939, it was upwards of sixty percent!
Depending on the historian, you will hear many different stories. You will hear that the IOC had its hands full stopping the Nazi propaganda machine lead by Dr. Josef Goebbels, from posting signs banning Jews, Slavs, and Gays from Berlin. It is more truth that fiction that the then head of the IOC, Henri de Baillet-Latour did tell Hilter to either show up at all medal ceremonies, or none at all. Baillet-Latour had also threatened to change the site of the Olympics over the Goebbel’s insistance on keeping Jews out of public places. One will also hear how Jewish sprinters, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, prominent Americans, were kept from running and replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe on the day of the 4 x 100 meters. Some said that this was to make sure the US beat the Germans. But AAU head, USOC head, and noted fascist sympathiser, Avery Brundage’s hand was seen in the team changes. Avery Brundage’s life in sports, (he competed and was beat by Jim Thorpe in the 1912 decathlon and pentathlon) and life as a sports leader (AAU, USOC, IOC) would last for nearly fifty years.
If people complain about federations and sports bureaucracy now, the 1930s were one of the heydays of so called amateurism. The head of the US Olympic committee at the time, Avery Brundage, was no poster boy of diversity. Brundage would stomp on Jesse Owens and take away his amateur standing soon after the Olympic Games. Owens was tired, and wanted to see his wife and family, after a long season in Europe. Brundage used the situation to make sure Jesse Owens would never compete as an amateur again.
One could call Brundage a racist, perhaps a misogynist (he did not want women competing in Olympic sports, track & field in particular), maybe even a fascist, but he was the guy with the Olympic charter, and his treatment of Jesse Owens, by contempory standards was totalitarian at worst, and cruel at best.
To his credit, Jesse Owens held his head up, found various ways to support his family and like most Americans, black or white, did the best that he could. That is the secret of this country, in good times, in bad times, Americans find a way to make life work. Jesse Owens was purely an American phenomenon.
For me, the part of the story of Jesse Owens that rings true to this day was his friendship with Luz Long, the German who helped Jesse with his steps in the long jump. That is not about racism being overcome, it was about athleticism, the true beauty of our sport. It was not about color, it was not about nationality, it was about sport, and honest sport.The picture of Long and Owens, arms around shoulders, leaving the Berlin Stadium after Owens took the gold, Long taking the silver, is one of the great images of our sport, or any sport. That Long would loose his life on the Eastern front during the Second World War added to the legend.
It is appropriate that the families of Jesse Owens and Luz Long will meet at the IAAF World Championships. I applaud the IAAF, USATF and the Berlin organizing committee for that piece of history. Image is key in sports history, and this is one that we all can be proud of.
I would hope that, if Mr. Owens were alive today, he would be pleased with the changes in our sport, of amateurism being dismantled and he would be pleased that a good athlete could make a nice living. But, Mr. Owens might also be disheartened by the level of depravity that has become part of our sport: drugs, athletes with criminal records, athletes not realizing that, they are always role models and need to behave as such.
I never met Jesse Owens. I have only read about him, spoke to reporters who did interview him, and seen him on newsreel. I can not appreciate what it was like for Mr. Owens to live in the time he did, a role model for Americans, especially African Americans. That Mr.Owens had trouble comprehending the 1968 Olympics and the stands of Tommie Smith and John Carlos should come as no surprise. By this time, Mr. Owens was doing some work for the USOC.
He was cast as an older man of color and supporter of the status quo, with a sports world that was coming apart at its seams. Smith and Carlos did not ask for respect, they demanded respect for their sport, their race on the global stage! That was not something that Mr. Owens, from his life experiences, could fathom.
Perhaps it is ironic that Mr. Owens could not see that both he and Mr. Smith and Mr. Carlos had given performances in vastly different times, performances that changed the face of sports, and the image of sport, and were lost in the emotions of the time. Mr.Owens paid a huge price for his being a black athlete in the 1930s, Mr. Smith and Mr. Carlos paid a huge price for their stunning performances, but mostly for their amazing demands for respect and obvious outrage at not being treated as the men they were, because of their color in the 1960s.
I once interviewed Carl Lewis’ mother, Evelyn, at the NSSF Indoor champs, now the Nike Indoor in Boston, in perhaps 1995 or 1996. Eveyln Lewis was a delight. I asked her about competing as a black women in the 1950s in track & field, and the memories came back in droves. She told me of not being able to stay in the same hotel as white teams, and how it was very unusual for black and white women athletes to compete against each other. What was fascinating to me, is that Mrs. Lewis spoke of the facts of the time, but also told me of the great times she had with her team mates, of working out with her coach, who had flown with the Tuskegee Airman, a famed fighter squadron in World War 2 of African-American pilots, who escorted B-17s over Germany during bombing raids. She was quite matter of fact. She wanted to make sure that young American kids, white and black, knew about how much change had come in the country, and how much was still needed.
This will be my first trip to Berlin’s famous stadium. I hope to appreciate the beauty and change in our sports over the past seventy-three years. I am honored to be able to write about a sport that I love, and athletes that I respect. I hope to walk on the field one night, and venture out to the long jump area and consider for a moment, what happened in August, seventy-three years ago.
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