Great Sporting Moments: Jesse Owens wins four gold medals in Berlin

The 1936 Olympics were the Games that Hitler hijacked to promote his racist ideology. But a quiet black man from Alabama made a nonsense of such ideas - and his triumphs came to symbolise the idea of sport as an expression of our common humanity. Mike Rowbottom on Jesse Owens.
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The Independent Online

Some athletes achieve immortality through a single, consummate moment. Bob Beamon travels through the thin air of Mexico City at the 1968 Olympics, on and on, before touching down in the sand. When he realises he has long-jumped 8.90 metres, or 29 feet 21/2 inches - nearly 2 feet further than the world record, in a discipline where increments are normally measured in inches - he collapses in shock. Filbert Bayi goes straight to the front in the 1974 Commonwealth Games 1500m final at Christchurch, and stays there, and stays there - and, 3 minutes 32.16 seconds later, with the field closing but not close, its leaders also running beyond their known limits, he has taken almost a full second off the world record of the great Jim Ryun.

These are the occasions on which events in track and field leap forward, and they are celebrated as such by those whose spirits leap up in witness.

But how to celebrate a man who produced not one explosion of athletics brilliance, but a series of detonations whose aftershocks still reverberate within the sport more than 70 years later?

When Jesse Owens collected his fourth gold medal of the 1936 Olympics as a member of the United States 4x100m relay team - his 12th event, including heats, in the space of seven days - he completed a unique sequence of achievement that still stands as an incomparable indicator of sporting excellence.

Owens's Olympic victories - in the 100m, 200m, long jump and sprint relay - were eventually matched, in scope at least, by Carl Lewis, in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. What gives Owens's achievement a far deeper resonance is the context. Unlike Lewis, who was feted on home soil, Owens, the 22-year-old son of Alabama sharecroppers and the grandson of slaves, was competing in the most intimidating environment imaginable. The scene of his triumphs was Berlin, where the racist ideology of the Nazi regime was building towards its full, awful intensity - and where the great instigator himself, Adolf Hitler, was a regular spectator in the stands of the Olympic stadium.

When Lewis competed in Los Angeles, he suffered some heckling in response to his decision to be economical with his attempts in the long jump (saving himself for the other events). When Owens competed in Berlin, he was operating within the framework of a regime that considered him intrinsically inferior.

Nazi propaganda was already portraying Negroes as "black auxiliaries". And, as Albert Speer, Germany's war armaments minister, recalled in his memoirs, Inside The Third Reich, Hitler was "highly annoyed" by Owens's series of victories. Speer added: "People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilised whites and hence should be excluded from future games."

To maintain a peak of achievement over a whole week in such an ugly moral environment was a mark of Owens's courage and determination. In later years, the story was told - and not always discouraged by Owens himself - of how Hitler had snubbed him by refusing to shake his hand after his victories, his form of congratulation for German winners.

This was not so. Hitler had indeed shaken hands with all the German victors on the first day of competition, and with the three medal winners in the 10,000m, who were all from Finland, his future allies in the Second World War. But Olympic officials then insisted he acknowledge publicly either all winners or none. Hitler chose the latter course, and so from the second day of competition, when Owens began his Olympics with the 100m heats, there was no question of his being personally greeted by the Führer.

If there was one black American who might have expected that dubious honour, it was Cornelius Johnson, winner of the high jump at the end of the first day. Hitler left the stadium early. Now there was a snub.

In fact, despite the chilling racism of the Nazi regime, Owens found the atmosphere in Berlin personally supportive for much of the time. He was cheered by the crowd - "Yesseh Oh-vens, Yesseh Oh-vens" - and mobbed by autograph hunters. While in the German capital, Owens was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites - something that was denied to his fellow black countrymen back in the United States. Owens, in truth, had already had practice at maintaining his athletics course in the face of prejudice.

The irony was compounded when Owens returned home - to a deafening silence from Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House. "Hitler didn't snub me - it was [FDR] who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram," he was quoted as saying in Triumph, Jeremy Schaap's book about the 1936 Games.

This was an extraordinary omission. Even before the Games, Owens was an athletics superstar. Even in Berlin, spectators were aware of his staggering achievements on 25 May the previous year, when, while competing for Ohio State University at Ann Arbor, Michigan, he broke five world records and equalled a sixth in the space of three-quarters of an hour.

It had been a logistical feat in itself for Owens to fit in his exploits around the timetable of the meeting, something he was able to do only by gambling on taking just one long jump.

He later told French journalist Robert Parienté about his anxiety on the morning of that competition, as Parienté relates in his mammoth work, La Fabuleuse Histoire de l'Athletisme. Owens recalled that he had thought until the last moment that he would not be able to take part at all because of pain in his back - pain so acute that he had to take a hot bath before competing and required his team-mates to help him get kitted out beforehand. But, as the starting gun cracked for his opening event, the 100 yards, "as if by a miracle", he forgot his pain and concentrated on relaxing into his running. He equalled the world record of 9.4 seconds.

Even in his joy, Owens could not afford to lose concentration, as he had only 10 minutes to prepare for his single long jump. His solitary effort elicited exclamations of excitement from his competitors. "That immediately told me that I had just done something important," Owens commented. He had become the first man to break 8 metres, setting a world record of 8.13 metres that would stand for 25 years.

He then had a quarter of an hour to get ready for the 220 yards flat race, which was swiftly followed by the 220 yards low hurdles. He won both in world record times, of 20.3sec and 22.6sec respectively, setting new marks for the 200m and 200m hurdles en route.

"Under the acclamation of 10,000 spectators who could not believe their eyes, he put his tracksuit back on," Parienté writes. "Straight away the rain returned."

In Berlin, however, despite this superlative track record, Owens was not clear favourite to win the event he considered the paramount challenge at the Olympics - the 100m - even though, by that time, he shared the world record of 10.2sec with fellow Americans Charlie Paddock and Ralph Metcalfe.

Owens had been beaten three times over 100 metres in 1935 by Eulace Peacock, a tough, muscular character - also from Alabama - who had emerged from American Football at the age of 20 and swiftly established himself as a formidable sprinter and long jumper. Six weeks after Owens's display at Ann Arbor, Peacock became the second man to jump 8 metres in defeating the world record holder at the USA Championships in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Peacock then defeated Metcalfe and Owens in the 100m, and had beaten Owens twice more over that distance before the season was over. Away from the track, meanwhile, Owens was having to adjust to becoming a father after his high school sweetheart, whom he subsequently married, gave birth to a daughter.

Sadly for Peacock, an injury in May 1936 ended his contention for the Olympics, and effectively ended his top class career. But Metcalfe had qualified for Berlin and was eager to better the 100m silver he had earned in Los Angeles four years earlier. So Owens had to do a great deal more than turn up and face down those who wished him ill on account of the colour of his skin. He also had to contend with some high-class opposition. Owens won his opening heat, on 2 August, equalling the Olympic record of 10.3sec. In the second round, he recorded 10.2sec - a performance that would have equalled the world record had the following wind not been over the allowable limit. The next day was cool and cloudy - not ideal sprinting weather. Owens won his semi-final with a time of 10.4sec, and a fluid start in the final gave him the lead from the first stride. By halfway he had increased that lead to 5 feet. Metcalfe, habitually a relatively slow starter, had almost stumbled out of the blocks, and although he closed the gap in the second half of the race he finished a yard adrift in 10.4sec, as Owens equalled the Olympic record of 10.3sec. Owens later wrote: "Winning the 100m was the most memorable moment of all - to be known as the world's fastest human being."

He had earned the gold medal he most wanted, and with relative ease. As things turned out, his other sprinting medals would also arrive without anxiety - for him, at least. Yet they were no small matter in terms of their sporting and cultural significance.

The 200m final, on 5 August, offered Owens substantial grounds for hope in that Metcalfe, who 34 years later would be elected to the US Congress, had unaccountably failed to qualify for the event at the Games, having finished only fourth in the trials. Instead, as a light rain fell on a cold, damp evening, Owens's principal rival turned out to be the man who had followed him home in the trials, Mack Robinson. The rivalry was not a close one, even though, in his semi-final, Robinson had matched the Olympic record of 21.1sec that Owens had set in the first round, and had repeated in the second.

But the final was all about Owens. The 100m champion's relaxed style saw him flow around the bend with a two-yard advantage that had turned to four yards by the finish as he lowered his Olympic record to 20.7sec.

His final track gold - which would be his fourth overall - arrived on 9 August as he ran the first leg of the sprint relay to set up a winning margin that was subsequently maintained by Metcalfe, Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff. The quartet finished 15 yards clear of the Italians in a world record time of 39.8sec that would stand for 20 years. That victory was disfigured by a controversy over selection which was a reminder of the ugly themes that were never wholly absent from the background of the Berlin Games. In the weeks leading up to the event it had been assumed that the US quartet would comprise Draper, Wykoff, Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman. In his standard work, The Complete Book of the Olympics, David Wallechinsky quotes the response of the US sprint coach, Lawson Robertson, when asked in the the wake of Owens's 200m victory whether the new champion would be added to the line-up: "Owens has had enough glory and collected enough gold medals and oak trees to last him a while," Robertson said. "We want to give the other boys the chance to enjoy the ceremonie protocolaire."

Glickman, Stoller and Wykoff were assured of their places. The fourth choice would be between Draper and Metcalfe.

On the morning of the first heats, however, US officials told Glickman and Stoller that they were being dropped in favour of Owens and Metcalfe. Glickman and Stoller were the only Jewish athletes on the US team, and Glickman for one was convinced that the US Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage, had adjusted the team in order to avoid exacerbating the Führer's sensibilities. It was one unedifying episode which diminished the lustre of Owens's final Olympic flourish. Yet part of the glory of his Olympic achievement was the fact that, as relentlessly as the racists of various nations tried to poison the proceedings with their messages of hate, his own personal story continued to demonstrate the other side of the Olympic ideal: not the jingoistic one, but the ideal of sport as a force that can bring the human family together. Which brings us, belatedly, to Owens's second medal.

On 4 August, the day before his 200m victory, Owens had already received something he subsequently claimed he prized above anything that found its way round his neck during those seven days of glory: the comradeship of "Luz" Long.

At first glance, the German long jumper - tall, blue-eyed and blond - was the personification of the Aryan ideal of Nazi ideology. And although Owens arrived for long jump qualifying on the morning of 4 August as world record holder, he was soon put on his guard by the sight of Long taking prodigious leaps in practice. On the face of it, here was an ideal opportunity for the Nazis to see their theories of racial supremacy put into practice.

The qualifying distance was 7.15m, hardly a stretch for the man who had jumped 8.13m. But, having won his early morning 200m qualifying round in an Olympic record of 21.1sec, Owens failed to see the judges raising their flags to indicate the start of competition. Still in his tracksuit, he took a practice run down the approach and into the pit, only to see officials indicating that this had counted as the first of his three efforts.

Discomfited, he fouled on his next attempt. This left him with only one remaining jump to ensure that he reached the final later in the day.

At this point, according to Owens, the embodiment of the Aryan ideal sauntered up to him and introduced himself in English. Wallechinsky reports the subsequent conversation thus: "Glad to meet you," said Owens tentatively. "How are you?" "I'm fine," replied Long. "The question is, how are you?"

"What do you mean?" asked Owen.

"Something must be eating you," said Long, proud to display his knowledge of American slang. "You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed."

Then, apparently, Long suggested that, as the qualifying distance was only 7.15m, Owens should shift his mark back to ensure that he took off well short of the board and remained clear of any possibility of fouling again.

Owens complied, retracting the initial marker for his run-up by a foot and a half before taking off uninhibitedly to qualify with just half a centimetre to spare.

When the final was held later that afternoon, Owens took a first round lead with 7.74m. In the second round, generating a deep roar of approval within the Olympic stadium, Long matched that mark, only for the American to respond with 7.87m. But on his fifth and penultimate attempt, the German created general uproar, and jubilation in an official tribune that contained not just Hitler but Goebbels, Goering, Hess and Himmler, by matching Owens again.

As Owens prepared to respond, it was his German opponent who raised both arms in the air as if to still the ferment, casting what Parienté described as a "furtive" glance towards his nation's unruly rulers.

Now Owens embraced his opportunity, fluent on the runway, his feet pattering lightly before a take-off that re-established his superiority as he landed at 7.94m. With his sixth and final attempt, Long could not improve on his best. Hitler immediately rose and left the stadium - missing the American's concluding effort: 8.06m.

"That business with Hitler didn't bother me," Owens later wrote. "I didn't go there to shake hands. What I remember most was the friendship I struck up with Luz Long. He was my strongest rival, yet it was he who advised me to adjust my run-up in the qualifying round and thereby helped me to win.

"We corresponded regularly until Hitler invaded Poland and then the letters stopped. I learnt later that Luz was killed in the war, but afterwards I started corresponding with his son and in this way our friendship was preserved."

Long perished in a British military hospital after receiving fatal wounds during the Battle of St Pietro in 1943. Owens, who took up smoking after his athletics career ended, died of lung cancer on 31 March 1980.

For Owens, the moment of ultimate glory was brief. He declined the invitation to compete immediately after the Games at a meeting in Sweden, preferring to capitalise on his success by taking up commercial offers in the States. American officials immediately withdrew his amateur status, effectively ending his career.

Without obvious opportunities to demonstrate his abilities, Owens found that the offers swiftly dwindled, and he was obliged to become, effectively, an athletics sideshow as he raised money by challenging local sprinters over 100 yards, giving them 10 or 20 yards' start. He also raced against horses, sometimes winning.

"People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do?" Owens said. "I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals."

That pragmatic attitude was mirrored in his reaction to the Black Power salutes offered on the podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympics by the 200m gold and bronze medallists Tommy Smith and John Carlos. "The black fist is a meaningless symbol," Owens said.

"When you open it you have nothing but fingers - weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there's money inside. There's where the power lies."

Owens spoke from bitter experience, having briefly run a dry-cleaning business and then worked as a petrol station attendant before filing for bankruptcy. In 1966 he had been prosecuted for tax evasion, but his life took an upturn as he began work travelling the world as a "goodwill ambassador", addressing gatherings at the US Olympic Committee and the Ford Motor Company. It was during these years that his story became adorned with elements of myth, notably the suggestion that Hitler had actively snubbed him.

Even Owens's name contained an ambiguity. He had been christened James Cleveland Owens, but became known as Jesse at the age of nine soon after his family had moved to Cleveland, Ohio, as part of the Great Migration away from the cotton fields. His new teacher asked him his name and mistook his country accent when he responded: "JC Owens." What was unambiguous, however, was the place his feats had earned for him in the history of his sport.

Many observers believe that, in purely athletic terms, his greatest glory was at Ann Arbor, rather than Berlin. But the significance of his Olympic achievements went beyond sport, as he gave the lie to Nazi ideology in its very cradle, under the gaze of its creator.

Owens's long jump victory is well documented in Olympia, the film made by German director Leni Riefenstahl, which was intended to offer enduring proof of Aryan superiority. Meanwhile, as a symbol of hope - of sport as a celebration of our common humanity - his relationship within that event with the man who finished as silver medallist could hardly be bettered.

The tall, doomed German was the first to congratulate Owens in his moment of victory.

"You can melt down all the medals and cups I have," Owens wrote later. "And they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment."

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