No. 374: How An Iconic Sprinter Outran Notions of Race / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
22 August 2016
According to Greek mythology, the origins of the recently concluded Olympic Games lie in the gods on Mount Olympus engaging in sporting contests, and the ancient games commemorated the patriarch deity, Zeus. Since 1896, the children of the world have come out to play every four years to demonstrate the power of sport in uniting the globe.
Perhaps, the most dramatic modern Olympic moment occurred 80 years ago in Berlin. A 22-year-old African-American, Jesse Owens, shattered German Chancellor Adolf Hitler's myth of white Aryan invincibility by winning four gold medals. Berlin was to be Hitler's showpiece Olympics to mark the rebirth of Germany as a great power and the triumph of Nazi ideology. Owens instead pissed on Hitler's parade, turning out one of the greatest performances yet witnessed.
These events were immortalised in controversial German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl's 1938 epic, Olympia, which had ironically been commissioned by Joseph Goebbels's propaganda ministry to demonstrate German athletic prowess. Instead, the documentary perfectly captured Owens's graceful, almost effortless upright running style and lightning-quick, short strides as he won the 100m and the 100m relay (both world records), the 200m and the long jump (both Olympic records).
The biopic Race, which chronicled Owens's life story, was released earlier this year. Born into poverty in Alabama, his share-cropper father was part of the "Great Migration" of blacks from the segregated South in the 1920s. The family ended up in Cleveland, where Owens joined the Ohio State athletics team.
Living in Depression-era America, Owens was denied access to a scholarship due to his race and had to work four jobs. When he travelled with his team, he was forced to eat in separate restaurants and sleep in separate hotels.
Despite these obstacles, Owens established his legend a year before the Olympics, breaking three world records (long jump, 220-yard sprint and 220-yard hurdles), and equalling another (110-yard dash) in a virtuoso 45-minute display of greatness.
The movie Race focuses on Owens's relationship with his tough-talking, temperamental white coach, Larry Snyder. The moral dilemma about whether to legitimise Hitler's propaganda games or boycott them is tackled in the movie.
The enormous social pressures on the young Owens are evident when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) urges him to boycott the Olympics. In the end, Jesse shows great self-belief and character in deciding that the best way to fight the prejudice of his home country and Hitler was to triumph in Berlin.
Race also centres on a crucial friendship between Owens and German athlete Carl "Luz" Long who, in the pressured cauldron of the competition in Berlin, sportingly provides Owens with advice in the long jump that helped the American defeat his German rival. As the German was sent to fight for his country in the Second World War, he wrote an emotional letter to Owens, noting that he feared he would not survive the war, and urging him to visit his son in Germany and tell him about their friendship — which Owens did after the war, in which Luz died on the Western front.
Ironically, while Owens lives in a racist country that denies blacks their most basic rights, he travels to the heart of Nazism in Berlin and is widely fêted as a superstar, able to stay in the same accommodation as his colleagues. Like another great Olympian, Muhammad Ali, three decades later, even after returning from the games, Owens continues to suffer the stifling racism of his home country. US president Franklin Roosevelt failed even to acknowledge Owens's remarkable achievement.
Vindictive American athletics authorities would remove Jesse's sporting licence for refusing to compete in a European tour. He thus tragically resorted to running against racehorses, and struggled financially before succumbing to lung cancer in 1980 at the age of 66. It took five decades before another great African-American — Carl Lewis — repeated Owens's remarkable feat by winning four gold medals in the same events at the Los Angeles Olympics.
Owens was honoured with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, had streets named after him in Cleveland and Berlin, a statue erected in Ohio, and a memorial park and museum dedicated to him in Alabama. He remains one of the greatest Olympians of all time, and Berlin became the most iconic example of the triumph of sports over politics.
Dr Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, and incoming director of the University of Johannesburg's Pan-African Institute for Thought and Conversation