REMEMBERING JESSE OWENS
Editors note: This is one in a series of stories on great sports moments in each month during the century.
In August 1936, Nazi Germany welcomed the Olympic Games with an enthusiasm that shrouded the evil of Hitler’s Third Reich. The regime’s racism and anti-Semitism were hidden behind the facade of anticipation for a great athletic event.
Crowds jammed the Berlin rail station as the American team arrived from Hamburg. Most of the excitement was generated by a young athlete from Ohio State. A year earlier, Jesse Owens broke five world records and equaled a sixth in 45 minutes at the Big Ten championships.
Now, he would move on to the world stage for what turned out to be one of the greatest sports performances of the century.
Owens was viewed as something of an oddity by the German crowds. Not only was he a brilliant sprinter, he was the best long jumper in the world, too.
And, oh yes, there was one more thing.
He happened to be black.
In Nazi Germany, this was not exactly celebrated. Hitler’s regime was fond of referring to Owens and some of his teammates as America’s “black auxiliaries.” Still, the fans were fascinated by the lithe sprinter, the son of a cotton picker and grandson of slaves.
“There were 120,000 people in the stands all the time,” said Marty Glickman, who was an 18-year-old sprinter on that American team and later became a nationally known sportscaster. “Whenever Jesse appeared, the crowd roared ‘Ohv-ens! Ohv-ens!’ And whenever Hitler appeared, they would roar ‘Seig Heil! Seig Heil!’ It sounded the same.”
Glickman remembered 1936 Berlin as a beautiful city, immaculate in fact, its people friendly and enthusiastic. The streets were lined with Nazi flags, swastikas everywhere, but they were not yet ominous, at least not to the American athletes who were less interested in politics than they were in their events.
Even though concentration camps existed almost as soon as the Nazis took over in 1933 and the regime’s intentions seemed clear, the Olympics kept their appointment with Hitler--and Owens kept his with history.
“There were two stars of those games,” Glickman said, “and one of them was black.”
Owens’ odyssey began in the 100. He and teammate Ralph Metcalfe shared the world record of 10.2 seconds and Owens was just a fraction off that mark at 10.3 in the first round of the event. That was also his time in the final, when he led from the start and was a yard in front of Metcalfe at the tape.
“That was the one I wanted,” Owens said years later. “That was the one I had worked for. I wanted to be known as the world’s fastest human and that went with the 100-meter title.”
After the victory, there was no greeting from Hitler, an act widely perceived as a snub. For his part, Owens was not offended.
“It was all right with me,” he said. “I didn’t go to Berlin to shake hands with him, anyway.”
Next for Owens was the long jump where the main competition was expected to be Luz Long of Germany, one of Hitler’s favorite athletes. Owens had set the world record in the event at 26 feet, 8 1/4 inches at the 1935 Big Ten championships.
In practice, Long was routinely nailing 26-foot jumps and Owens became alarmed. Still in his sweat suit, the American decided to test the runway. German officials counted it as his first of three qualifying jumps.
Unnerved, Owens fouled on his next try at the qualifying distance of 23-5 1/2. Now, he was in real trouble, with just one jump left to qualify. It was then that Long, the blue-eyed, blond Aryan hero, strolled over to the black American, armed with some encouragement and advice.
Twenty-three feet would be easy for a jumper with Owens’ talent, Long told him. Perhaps Owens should move his takeoff mark back to avoid an accidental foul.
Owens took the suggestion, qualified and then survived a back-and-forth battle with Long, winning the gold with an Olympic record leap of 26-5 1/2.
And Hitler’s reaction?
Alan Gould, then sports editor of The Associated Press, was in Berlin. He wrote: “Der Fuehrer joined in terrific applause accorded the American ace whose performances now have thrilled upward of 300,000 spectators three straight days and had given the Olympic games their most outstanding individual performer since Paavo Nurmi’s exploits of 1924 when the ‘Phantom Finn’ won three gold medals.”
Now it was on to the 200 for Owens.
In the first round, he set an Olympic record of 21.1 seconds, a time he repeated in the second round. The mark was matched by American Mack Robinson in the semifinal.
The final was all Owens. Running in a light rain, he took a 2-yard lead into the straightaway and doubled it by the finish line, winning in a record 20.7 seconds.
With three gold medals, Owens felt his work was done. That, however, turned out not to be true.
A day before the qualifying heats for the 400-meter relay, coaches Lawson Robertson and Dean Cromwell met with the sprinters, Owens and Metcalfe and the relay team of Glickman, Sam Stoller, Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff.
Glickman remembers the details vividly.
“Robertson said there were rumors that the Germans were hiding their best sprinter to upset us in the 400-meter relay and that they were going to substitute Owens and Metcalfe for myself and Stoller,” he said.
“We were shocked. I was a brash 18-year-old kid, the youngest member of the squad. I said, ‘Coach, you can’t hide a world class sprinter.’
“They said, ‘We’re taking no chances.’ ”
There was immediate suspicion that because Glickman and Stoller were Jewish, the switch was being made to avoid any embarrassment for Hitler. “It was,” Glickman said, “overt anti-Semitism.”
Owens wanted no part of the affair. He told the coaches he was tired after running four rounds of the 100 and four more of the 200, as well as the long jump.
“I’ve won my three golds,” he said. “Let Marty and Sam run. They deserve it.”
“Cromwell pointed a finger at Jesse,” Glickman recalled, “and he said, ‘You’ll do as you’re told.’ ”
The debate was over.
There was no surprise sprinter for the Germans. The Americans won the race in a world record 39.8 seconds. Owens had his fourth gold medal.
After the race, the winning team stood in front of Hitler’s box. He gave the Nazi salute. The Americans nodded and walked away.
Owens skirted the issue of Hitler snubbing him.
“Hitler wasn’t in any races I ran in,” he once said. “I wasn’t thinking about Hitler. I was thinking about the man I had to beat.
“I passed the chancellor once and he waved at me. I never thought he slighted me.”
Owens returned to America to a mixed welcome, embraced in some circles, ignored in others.
There were parades in New York and Cleveland but no official congratulations or invitation to the White House from President Roosevelt. Somehow, the Amateur Athletic Union also managed to pass him over for the Sullivan Award, presented to the nation’s top amateur athlete.
Without the outpouring of opportunities so commonplace with later Olympic heroes, Owens struggled. Unable to find a job as a coach, he was forced into embarrassing, tacky promotions like racing against horses.
“He was trying to make a living,” said Herb Douglas, founder of the International Amateur Athletic Association, which administers the Jesse Owens International Trophy Award. “He had to do it. He ran to make money. That was the way things were.”
Eventually, Owens went into public relations and served as spokesman for several corporations. His No. 1 client was Jesse Owens.
“He had a sense of how important it was to be Jesse Owens,” said Douglas, who was 14 in 1936 and, inspired by Owens, won the long jump bronze medal in the 1948 Olympics. “He was the epitome of how a man should be, on and off the field.
“Jesse was never controversial. I never heard him bum-rap anybody. Jesse and Joe Louis broke barriers down for African-Americans in a way that was acceptable. They were the epitome of gentlemen. They did it in the right way.”
In 1968, when the USOC heard about a planned protest by some black athletes at the games in Mexico City, Owens was dispatched to talk the runners through the affair. It seemed a natural choice: a black Olympic hero to speak to young black athletes.
This, however, was a different time and a different place.
Tommie Smith, whose clenched fist gesture on the medals podium became the symbol of those games, recalled Owens’ visit.
“He said, ‘We understand there are people here intent on protest. This is no place for that. We are all Olympians. We love everybody,’ ” Smith said.
And the reaction of the protesters?
“He was asked to leave,” Smith said. “When he walked out, I almost cried.”
Owens died in 1980. Glickman recalled the funeral.
“I got there after the service started,” he said. “I was at the back of the church. I saw all the former Olympians sitting together as a group. Fritz Pollard saw me and waved to me to join them and I did.
“I felt a little self-conscious. I was the only white guy there.”