With the final event of the London Olympics more than a month removed and the history book sufficiently rewritten with the amazing and amazingly heartbreaking moments that defined this summer's game many of us have had enough Olympics to last the next three summers.
However, on this day we should pause to reflect on the life and the legacy of one our greatest Olympic Champion.
On September 12, 1913, in the small farming town of Oakville, Alabama Henry and Emma Owens, two sharecroppers and the children of slaves, welcomed their tenth and final child to the world, James Cleveland Owens.
J.C. as his family and friends would call him would grow up to become Jesse Owens, 4-time Olympic Gold medalists and arguably the greatest athlete of his generation.
The details of the Owens' meteoric yet unlikely rise from a sickly farm boy to an amateur track and field phenom who's performance at the 1936 Olympic Games would not only make him a sports superstar but a cultural icon are well documented. The less covered side of the Jesse Owens story are the social and political huddles that he crossed on his journey to become a legend.
If you are looking for an analysis of Owens sports exports compared to today's Olympic champions you will not find it here. Owens started his track & field career in an era that did not even feature starting blocks. Owens' World Record time in the 100 meters (10.3 seconds) in 1936 would have placed him ahead of one runner from this summer 100 meters final heat. Given the advances in sports training and nutrition in the 70 plus year since Owens claimed the title, as World's Fastest Man the fact that his time is within a reasonable distance of today's speeders is more than impressive, any further comparison would be unfair to both sides.
Another comparison I will not attempt to make is judging the adversities that Owens faced compared to today's Olympians. No question that Jesse Owens' America and global society for that matter are not the same that current of even many of the previous Olympians faced. However, one of the hallmarks of every Olympics beside the breathtaking feats of athleticism are the incredible odds that many Olympians overcome just for the chance to compete in the games. The tremendous sacrifices that 2-time gold medalists Gabby Douglass made her success that much sweeter and the gallant efforts of South Africa's double amputee sprinter Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorius allowed us to pull hard for the long shot to pull out an upset.
Jesse Owens did enough on his own in his own time to garner our respect. For instance on his way back from his dazzlingly Olympic performance Owens took a stand and paid a penalty that would lay the foundation for a landmark change in the treatment of amateur athletes.
In 1936 the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was the feeder system for all of America's Olympic teams including track and field. The AAU also was the governing body that defined the amateur status of athletes. If an athlete lost his amateur status he would lose the opportunity to receive a collegiate athletic scholarship, complete in college sporting events or train with some of the best coaches in the country. Holding the key to such an important privilege for many of the nation's top athletes allowed the AAU to operate in a way that many would deem unfair.
After being away from home for more than a month and turning in a performance of a lifetime at the Berlin games Jesse Owens, wanted nothing more than to return home to his family. The AAU had other plans; they had planned a European tour to showcase and profit off America's newly minted Olympic champion track and field team largely without telling the athletes about it. America's track and field team left the Berlin game to start the AAU organized tour even before the closing ceremonies. After several disappointing stops on the forced exhibition tour Owens decided that he had enough. After talking it over with his coaches Owens would leave the tour. The one decision electively ended his Ohio State collegiate career and limited his possibility to make money from his running since the majority of the track meets at the time were AAU backed. In response the AAU suspended Owens indefinitely. Owens felt it was unfair that we was traveling the world making money for the AAU when he could not even afford to buy souvenirs for his daughter. Owens would challenge the AAU's ruling, but they would not reverse their judgment.
Fast-forward 40 years later and another American track and field phenom Steve Prefontaine loges similar complaints against the AAU that Owens sighted. Mainly pointing to the inherent unfairness of the AAU championing amateurism while profiting from the effort of the athletes they charged to protect and represent. Behind this new wave of criticism President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, formally ended the AAU reign of exploiting America's Olympic hopefuls and established several protections for individual amateur athletes.
Jesse's importance was not relegated to the sphere of sports. Owens' victories in the Berlin Olympics were held as a symbolic thwarting of Adolf Hitler's Nazi army in their own backyard. There are numerous stories telling of the treatment that Owens received from the German crowds, individual competitors, and even Hitler himself. Owens was hoisted as an example of why the Nazi's ideals were categorically wrong. However, the newly crowned defeater of the German subculture has misgivings about the kind of treatment he and his people received in America. Owens who lived in segregated dorms while he was a student at Ohio State University was no less an Olympic champion when he returned home and was still regulated to riding on the back of bus. In fact Owens famously said, "Although I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either." Pointing out that the nations that would eventually go to war over their opposing views had some unsettling similarities.
It would be unfair to only measure Owen's life by the struggles he faced at home and abroad. Owens' life was a study in uplift. Even though Owens was subjected to racing against horses to make money for his family he went on to become found a successful public relation firm and became a revered public speaker. Owen also returned to Ohio State University. In 1953 Gloria Owens, Jesse and Ruth's oldest daughter graduated from OSU, in 1960 Marlene the Owens' second child who would also graduate from OSU was named Homecoming Queen and became the first African American awarded that honor. The grandson of slaves that spent a good portion of his childhood working odds to support his family over regularly attending school would receive an honorary doctorate in 1972.
At the time of his death in 1980 Owens had received awards and honors the world over.
Many of Owens feats in the athletic arena have been matched or eclipsed but the path that he blazed will forever be in tact as a testimony to his perseverance, honor, and courage.
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