In the second of a short series looking back on some of the greatest athletes in history, produced during the COVID-19 lockdown, we looked back on the highlights of the career of Jesse Owens.


 

We don’t have an Olympic Games in 2020 but when we look back over the history of sport it is these Olympiad’s that so often throw up the most memorable of moments.

The last time the Olympics were not held when they were supposed to be was during the second world war in 1940 and 1944.

The last games before this enforced absence were held in Berlin in 1936.

To say they politically charged would be something of an understatement with Hitler’s Nazi party using them as a measure of how strongly Germany had rebounded from the previous World War less than two decades earlier.

The stadia, the setting, the ceremonies were all choreographed to show his power and that of Germany.  It was also to highlight the supremacy of the Aryan Race but in this, he had counted without the presence of a slaves grandson and a sharecroppers son from Alabama born James Cleveland Owens.

When he was at school the roll call had him down as JC Owens and a teacher at the time misheard that as Jesse, a name that stuck throughout his life.

As a black man in the 1930’s, there was no such thing as a sporting scholarship but he was fleet of foot in school and while he had to pay his way through working in a variety of part-time jobs he was welcomed as an athlete student at Ohio State University.

On May 25th 1935 he produced what many would argue was the greatest 45 minutes in athletic history.

The Big ten is the top division of National Collegiate Athletics and at a meeting in Michigan on that date, he set three new world records and equalled one more.

The Long Jump record he set that day was 26 feet, eight and one-quarter inch and it lasted 25 years.

With that level of performance, he was a natural to compete at the next Olympic Games, to be held in Hitler’s Capital of Berlin.

The world was beginning to wake up to the breaches of human rights that were starting to manifest in the country at that time but they were for the most part hidden.

There was some discussion over whether the United States should attend,  but the greater threat to Owen’s participation came from Civil Liberties groups who argued he should absent himself in protest over the treatment at home of black athletes and others.

When Owens travelled to track meets with Ohio State University he had to stay in separate hotels and eat in different restaurants to his white teammates.

When he arrived in Germany he would hardly have been surprised had he been shoved to one side but if anything the German people were aware of his talent and greeted him with enthusiasm.

Of course, that did not extend to the upper echelons of the Nazi party.   Much was made of the fact that Hitler never recognised Owen’s achievements over the course of the Games.  In fact, while he attended many sessions he only attended one medal ceremony on an opening day but only shook the hands of German winners.

Asked to acknowledge all athletes or none, he chose the latter and left that stadia on all subsequent days before the ceremonies.

On August 3rd Jesse Owens won the 100-metre ‘dash’ as it was known then.  the following day he won the long jump and the day after it was the 200 metres.

Controversially four days later he was drafted into the sprint relay team at the expense of a Jewish-American athlete, despite his protestations but he ran in the end and lifted his fourth Gold medal of the Games.

It was the stuff of sporting legend and when the US team arrived back after a transatlantic crossing, he was the star of a ticker-tape parade through Manhattan.

When he arrived at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel though for the reception he had to enter through a staff entrance to the side and go up in a service elevator.  There were limits to what a black man was able to do even if he was a four-time Olympic Champion.

Those limits extended to the White House as well with Owens never receiving any note of congratulation from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It was not until the days of Gerald Ford in the 1970’s that he was recognised with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

These were the days before athletic endorsement deals and Owens never became a rich man as he would have today.

He worked in a gas station and in a dry cleaning business, supplementing his income by racing against amateurs with a 20-yard start and even at times against racehorses at shows and events across the country.

In 1966, thirty years after his moment of history, he was prosecuted for tax evasion and filed for bankruptcy.

Perhaps with a sense of guilt, he did bounce back as a goodwill ambassador for the US Government.

In 1972 he travelled to the Olympic Games in Munich as a guest of the West German Government.

Owens had been a heavy smoker after his athletic career ended and that caught up with him when he died of lung cancer in 1980.

In a tribute after his death, President Jimmy Carter said that there had been no athlete who better symbolised the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry.

Jesse Owens, 1913 to 1980 perhaps one of the greatest and certainly one of the most important Olympians in history

 

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