Jesse Owens: A Retrospective
JESSE OWENS and THE RACE
....little did we know
My mother was 32 and my father 46 when American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, won four Olympic gold medals. This stunning triumph of the most famous athlete at the 1936 Olympic Games captivated the world even as it infuriated the Nazis. My parents had not yet met in 1936, although they both worked in the lunch-pail city of Hamilton Ontario. They would meet at some time before WW2 broke out, or in the first years of that terrible conflict. I don't know exactly when they did meet; they have long since passed away and so I will never know.
But much is known about the late 30s and early 40s. Modern history is replete with information: Donald Bradman, the cricket legend was scoring 100s of runs in his winning ways; the first players were elected to baseball's hall of fame; the first Volkswagen was built; Alan Turing submitted On Computable Numbers for publication, and in this work he set out the theoretical basis for modern computers; two days later, on 30 May 1936, Shoghi Effendi asked the North American Baha'i community to design the first systematic teaching plan.1 I have been associated with extensions of that plan for more than 60 years.
Despite the racial slurs he endured, Jesse Owens' grace and athleticism rallied crowds across the globe. But when the four-time Olympic gold-medalist returned home, he could not even ride in the front of a bus. Jesse Owens(1913-1980) is the story of the 22-year-old son of a sharecropper who triumphed over adversity to become a hero and world champion. His story is also about the elusive, fleeting quality of fame and the way Americans idolize athletes when they suit their purpose, and forget them once they don't.2
Last night I watched a documentary on Jesse Owens.2 I am looking forward to the 2015 biopic Race starring Stephan James who will play Olympic legend Jesse Owens. This is the work of director Stephen Hopkins' which began shooting on 24 July 2014 in Montreal, and on location at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. The film will be released in April 2015.
The atmosphere around the 1936 Berlin Olympics was highly politically charged. Originally opposed to the idea of the games, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was convinced by his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels that they were the perfect opportunity to showcase the superiority of Aryan athletes. Hitler presided over the opening day ceremonies, whipping the crowds into a frenzy of excitement. On 3 August 1936, when Jesse Owens stepped into the massive new Olympic Stadium in Berlin, the crowd went silent with anticipation, sitting on the edge of their seats to see the much-talked-about track star from America compete against the Germans.
Running on a muddy track, Owens equalled both the Olympic and world records of 10.3 seconds in the 100-meter dash, winning his first gold medal. James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens(1913-1980) specialized in the sprints, and the long jump. He was recognized in his lifetime as "perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history." His achievement of setting three world records and tying another in less than an hour at the 1935 Big Ten track meet has been called "the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport" and has never been equalled: 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4x100 meter relay.
Owens was the most successful athlete at the games and, as such, has been credited with single-handedly crushing Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy. Tradition called for the leader of the host country to congratulate the winner but Hitler refused. "Do you really think I will allow myself to be photographed shaking hands with a Negro?" the German leader asked. The 1936 Olympics glorified the Nazi regime and the personality-cult of Hitler. But Owens made a mockery of the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy.
In 1955 President Dwight Eisenhower named him a Goodwill Ambassador, and Owens travelled around the world to promote the American way of life. In 1980, he died from lung cancer, but his legacy has lived on through the path he paved for future African American athletes. Five weeks after Owens died I had my last major psychotic break in my 70 years of dealing with bipolar I disorder. I knew nothing of Jesse Owens until after I had retired from a 50 year student-and-paid-employment life, 1949 to 1999.
In 1984, an Emmy Award-winning biographical television film of his life, The Jesse Owens Story, was released, with Dorian Harewood portraying Owens. I was working in the dry-dog-biscuit land of the Northern Territory of Australia at the time. My nose was to the proverbial grindstone as the local adult educator and secretary of the small Baha'i group. I hardly had enough time to scratch myself after I looked up from an 80 hour week of responsibilities to job and family, community and columnist for The Katherine Advertiser.
Owens, a pack-a-day cigarette smoker for 35 years, had been hospitalized with an extremely aggressive and drug-resistant type of lung cancer on and off beginning in December 1979, the month I had just landed a job in a tin mine on the west coast of Tasmania where it rained most days of the year. Owens died in Tucson, Arizona, on 31 March 1980, with his wife and other family members at his bedside. He is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. You can read the story in Jacqueline Edmondson's 2007 book Jesse Owens: A Biography.
If one was to decide who was the greatest athlete in modern history there would be no clear-cut number-one choice. You could make a reasonable case for a dozen different achievements. What Jessie Owns did, though, ranks high because of the range of classic athletic skill demonstrated, the drama of the circumstances and the historic implications–in terms of both sports and the politics of the time.3-Ron Price with thanks to 1Shoghi Effendi, Messages to America: 1932-1946, Baha'i Pub. Comm., Wilmette, 1947, p.7; 2"Jesse Owens," NITV, 22 January 2015, 10 to 11 p.m.; and 3Bob Costas, Forbes, Thought of the Day, 11/18/'05.
Humanity was entering
the outer fringes of the
most perilous stage of
its existence; it's a stage
that has been my life, a
in its violence, sweeping
the face of the earth; its
driving power has been
remorselessly gaining in
range and momentum; &
humanity is gripped in the
clutches of its devastating
power, and smitten by the
evidences of its resistless
fury.1 The race had begun,
Jesse; you might say that
its inauguration was in the
summer of 1936, little did
we know, did we all know.
1 Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day Is Come, Baha'i Pub. Trust, New Delhi, India, 1976, p.1.