ANN ARBOR, Michigan, May 24 (AFP) - Only a tiny plaque on a small brick monument here commemorates 99-year-old Ferry Field as hallowed ground, the site of the finest hour in athletics thanks to the legendary Jesse Owens.
Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of Owens setting three world records and matching another within a span of 45 minutes, shrugging off back pain from a fall to produce the sport’s greatest one-day effort at age 21.
Owens matched the 100-yard world record of 9.4 seconds at 3:15 in the afternoon, then just 15 minutes later took one leap and set a world long jump record of 26-feet-8 1/4-inches (8.13m) that would stand for a quarter-century.
Buckeye Bullet'' set a 220-yard dash world record of 20.3 seconds at 3:34 and at the top of the hour set a 220-yard low hurdles record of 22.6 seconds. Conversions showed Owens' longest runs broke world 200m records even though he ran 201.68m to set the times. Only Owens, who died of lung cancer in 1980 at age 66, has set athletics world records in multiple events in one day. His long jump mark lasted until fellow American Ralph Boston broke it in 1960. Recalled largely by grainy black and white film from a 1936 Berlin Olympics in which he shattered Adolf Hitler's idea of a Master Race, Owens struggled with money after a feat that, if repeated today, would bring a king's ransom. Owens won four gold medals at Berlin, matching the world 100m record of 10.3 seconds, taking the long jump and 200m in Olympic records and running the first leg for a 4x100m relay that won in a world record 39.8 seconds. But Owens found no endorsement riches upon his homecoming. He was forced to run against horses at Negro League baseball games, a humbling fall from glory. For a time, at least, I was the most famous person in the entire world,’’ Owens said in remembrances on his official web site.
Everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job.’’
Born the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave in rural Alabama, Owens picked cotton as a child laborer. At age nine, the Owens family moved to Cleveland, where Owens equaled the 100-yard world record in high school.
Owens attended Ohio State University but in the midst of the
Great Depression'' and with the American civil rights movement 30 years away, Owens was forced to eat at blacks only’’ restaurants and sleep in segregated hotels.
I couldn't ride in the front of the bus,'' Owens recalled to biographers. I had to go to the back door.’’
Owens, a sophomore, slipped on water and injured his tailbone in a fall two two weeks before the 1935 Big Ten Conference Athletics Championship here at the University of Michigan, Ohio State’s arch rival.
Owens endured a 200-mile ride in the
rumble seat'' of a car over the Midwest backroads and was doubtful for the meet but decided to compete. The rest was simply history. Today, recreational runners trod the repaved track. Huge telephone poles with netting between them run down the middle of the track to catch any errant throws. One can still imagine Owens leaping into the jump pit over the takeoff judge's head and picking up the handkerchief he set at the world record length. A 10,000-seat Ohio State athletics stadium completed in 2001 bears Owens' name. But here, just beyond the first turn, Owens' plaque shares space with those of war-dead Michigan athletes - four in The World War’’, 17 in World War II and one in Vietnam.
A tribute motto on the World War II plaque would apply most aptly to Owens. It reads: ``Not dead, but living in deeds: Such lives inspire.’’