Jesse Owens (1913-1980), an American athlete and “the world’s fastest human”, won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. And he, a Black man, the grandson of slaves, did it at the Olympics held in Berlin, the heart of Nazi Germany. Hitler himself watched as Owens showed the world that Aryans were hardly the master race.
In our time Blacks are stereotyped as being “good at sports”. Back then they were stereotyped as being good at nothing. So to see Jesse Owens become the best in the whole world was a wonder.
Owens won gold medals in the 100m and 200m races, the long jump and the 400m relay race. He set the long jump record for the next 25 years: 8.06 metres.
Hitler refused to shake his hand: he did not want to be photographed shaking hands with a black man.
I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.
New York gave him a ticker tape parade, but to attend his own hero’s reception at the Waldorf Astoria he was made to take the freight elevator. That night he and his wife were turned away from hotel after hotel.
And then the press forgot about him.
He was born in Oakville, Alabama, the sickly son of sharecroppers. At age nine he became part of the Great Migration when his parents sold their mule and moved north to work in the steel mills of Cleveland, Ohio.
At high school Owens was breaking records. Universities wanted him. He went to Ohio State University (OSU). OSU would not allow him to live with White students on campus or travel with White teammates.
By 1935 he was breaking world records – three of them in 45 minutes.
After the Olympics, work was hard to find. Endorsements did not start pouring in – till the 1960s. Try as he might he did not have the grades to graduate from OSU. He was reduced to racing horses, dogs, cars and motorcycles at carnivals and baseball games.
By the 1940s he was able to make a living as a public speaker, praising the virtues of religion, family and country.
In 1968 US Olympic officials sent him to find the patriotic souls of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, they who would soon raise their black-gloved fists in a Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics (pictured above). Owens tried to talk them out of it!
They looked up to him as a sports legend, but his politics were from another age. Carlos told him:
Mr Owens, you know if you had stood up in 1936 a little more, we wouldn’t have to in 1968.
Some called Owens an Uncle Tom.
Owens was a Republican. In 1970 he said:
If the Negro doesn’t succeed in today’s America, it is because he has chosen to fail.
In 1976 he was at last invited to the White House, 40 years after his Olympic victory. President Ford gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour. The president shook his hand.