Jesse Owens remembered

jesse Owens: Olympic icon

DOUG GILLON February 16 2009

The Olympic bids from four would-be 2016 hosts have been submitted. Given the movement’s reverence for history, the one from Chicago will have scored highly, even in its delivery on Thursday.

It was presented by Stuart Owen Rankin, grandson of 1936 quadruple gold medallist Jesse Owens, most iconic of all US Olympic champions. While in Lausanne, Rankin visited the Olympic museum to see the shoes his grandfather wore in Berlin’s Olympics.

Owens won the 100m, long jump, 200m, and ran a relay leg - a four-title sweep equalled only by Carl Lewis in 1984. But Owens was a legend before Berlin. At Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1935, he set three world records and tied a fourth inside 45 minutes. It’s argued he also beat two others.

advertisementHe equalled the world 100 yards record, and set world records in the long jump, 220, and 220 hurdles. It’s argued he also beat the 200m and 200m hurdles marks in passing. His long jump (8.13m) lasted until 1960. He took only one jump. “I’d a sore back,” Owens said.

Myth surrounds Berlin. It is a fact that women slid marriage proposals under the door of his hotel bedroom before he ran a step. Hitler didn’t snub Owens as William Baker’s superb biography makes clear. Before he’d won his first medal, IOC president Henri Baillet-Latour told Hitler to acknowledge all winners, or none.

Owens later said: “When I passed the Chancellor, he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him.” Privately, however, Hitler’s faith in Aryan supremacy was unshakeable. Albert Speer, wartime armaments minister, wrote in his memoirs that Hitler wanted blacks excluded from future Olympics.

In the US, Owens was obliged to stay in black-only hotels, and dine in segregated restaurants. Not so in Germany. As Owens later said: “Hitler didn’t snub me - it was FDR president Roosevelt who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” After a ticker-tape reception, he reputedly had to use a lift reserved for freight at New York’s best-known hotel.

Owens had already run his last amateur race before the Olympic closing ceremony. He was banned by the US governing body, the American Athletic Union, because he declined to run in Stockholm.

Owens was opposed by the odious Avery Brundage, later president of the IOC. Their pro-Owens stance in the post-Brundage era smacks of revisionism, but won’t damage Chicago aspirations.

Owens was ordered by the AAU to compete in Cologne just two days after his final Olympic race. He’d already been offered $25,000 to appear on stage for two weeks with an orchestra in California, and there was another of $40,000 for a 10-week stage and radio tour.

His last Olympic run was on August 8. Exploitation began immediately. Anticipating his success, the AAU planned a series of contests inconceivable today. Owens’ presence meant the difference between 10% of gate receipts, and 15%.

Less than 24 hours after racing in Cologne he won the 100m and long jump in Prague. The next evening, after flights via Berlin to Bochum, he equalled his world 100m record (10.3). Before midnight that night, he was in London, for yet another match.

He was so broke he’d to cadge a glass of milk and sandwich from a fellow-traveller. The AAU had scheduled 10 more meets in Scandinavia. But by then Owens was banned, eventually obliged to compete against racehorses to turn a crust.

Regarded by many black Americans as an Uncle Tom, he died of cancer in 1980. But the legend lives on.