'Hitler was there. But Jesse had gone to fulfil a dream'

Jesse Owens' feats at the 1936 Olympics defined the triumph of sport over political evil. Now his granddaughter tells Simon Turnbull how she is delighted to honour his bravery as athletics returns to take centre stage in Berlin

Marlene Dortch reckons she was "about five years old" when she first became aware that her mother's father was something more than just a regular granddad. "I think that's the earliest I remember seeing some film of him running," she says, speaking from her home in Fort Washington, Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington DC. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, how fast he was!'"

The reaction was much the same in the Olympiastadion in Berlin on the afternoon of Monday 3 August 1936, when James Cleveland Owens, better known to the world as Jesse Owens, sped to the first of his record four track and field Olympic gold medals. Up in his box in the main stand, Adolf Hitler, the German Chancellor, might not have appreciated the graceful style with which the sharecropper's son from Alabama, the grandson of slaves, left the opposition trailing in the final of the men's 100 metres but all around the vast arena, draped with red and black swastika banners, the 110,000 spectators voiced their admiration. "Yess-say...Oh-vens," they chanted. "Yess-say...Oh-vens."

Dortch will be in the same stadium (renovated for the 2006 football World Cup) next week representing her late grandfather and the Owens family at the first major athletics championship to be held there since the momentous Olympic Games of 1936. She and her husband have been invited to accompany the United States team to the IAAF World Championships, which open in the Olympiastadion on Saturday. As a mark of respect to the countryman who won gold medals in the 100m, 200m, long jump and 400m in 1936, the US team will have the initials "JO" embroidered on their vests. The International Association of Athletics Federations, the world governing body of track and field, has invited Dortch and Kai Long, the son of Owens' German great long jump rival and friend Luz Long, to present the medals after the men's long jump final, on Saturday week, 22 August.

"I really am very proud to be going," Dortch says. "It's actually very humbling – to think so many years later that my grandfather is remembered and thought of so well. I know it's going to be quite an emotional experience, being in the stadium. I'm really looking forward to that – to seeing his name on the wall there and just taking it all in, knowing that was the stadium that he was in so many years ago. Wow, what can you say?"

It will be a trip full of symbolism. None of it will be lost on Mrs Dortch, who works as an attorney with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington DC. Her very name has a poignant resonance to it. "Oh, the German name," she says, laughing. "Well, it is of German extraction but my husband [Llewellyn Dortch] is not German."

When Mrs Dortch's grandfather arrived in Berlin in July 1936 the German press ran features charting the rise of "Das Negerfest" in American sport, attributing Owens' speed and jumping prowess to "animal qualities". One newspaper printed a photograph of an ape alongside that of the 22-year-old star of the Ohio State University track team.

And this was at a time when Berlin had undergone a vast makeover for the Games, with racist graffiti removed from walls and with what were considered to be the more extreme publications removed from news-stands. The previous autumn Hitler had passed the Citizenship Laws, stripping Jews of their nationality and rights, but the Führer was determined to maximise the Berlin Games as a propaganda exercise for his Nazi regime, papering over the brutal excesses to the watching world.

Still, the German press could not desist from glorying in the knockout victory achieved by the heavyweight boxer Max Schmeling, the darling of the Nazi regime, against the hitherto undefeated Joe Louis, a fellow Alabaman and close friend of Owens, at Yankee Stadium in New York two months before the opening of the Games. It was hailed as a triumph of the supposed Aryan super race. According to the magazine Der Weltkampf, America and her allies "could not thank Schmeling enough for this victory, for he checked the arrogance of the Negroes and clearly demonstrated the superiority of white intelligence".

What Owens subsequently achieved in the Berlin Olympic arena, under the gaze of Hitler and his henchmen, and amid all of the swastikas and the "Sieg Heils", could not have dealt a more telling blow to the solar plexus of the Third Reich's warped ideology.

Owens died of lung cancer in March 1980, aged 66. A myth has grown with his enduring legend that he was snubbed by Hitler after winning his first gold medal in Berlin. In fact, after congratulating two German gold medallists and a Finnish winner on the opening day of competition, the Führer was asked by the International Olympic Committee either to greet all winners or none, having promptly left the stadium after Owens' black team-mate Cornelius Johnson won the high jump.

There were no official invitations to Hitler's box thereafter. Baldur von Schirach, a former Nazi Youth leader, did try to persuade the Führer that he ought to at least be photographed alongside Owens. "These Americans should be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by a Neger," Hitler yelled in reply. "I would never shake the hand of one."

The German public thought differently. Wherever he went in Berlin, Owens was mobbed by adoring fans. Touchingly, the German athletes thought differently too. When Owens fouled his first two attempts in the long jump qualifying round and faced the prospect of elimination, he was somewhat nonplussed to find Luz Long befriending him and advising him to take off from a safe distance behind the board. The German looked like the very embodiment of Aryan manhood, something he and Owens joked about, as Hitler gazed down at them.

The Führer was not laughing then, nor when Long left the track with his arm around Owens after taking the silver medal behind the American in the final. "You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24 carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment," Owens said. Long was killed fighting for his country in 1943 but the friendship between the two families endures to this day.

Owens always spoke fondly of his time in Berlin. "We all knew about the racial thing but we couldn't read German so we couldn't read about us being animals and all that," he reflected in later life. "But the German people were tremendous. Every day we got a standing ovation from the multitude of people. They were looking at you not as a black man but in terms of the ability you displayed."

Dortch always looked at Owens as her granddad, rather than the man who busted the myth of Aryan supremacy. "He never talked to us, his family, about Hitler or the Berlin Olympics," she says. "He travelled the world as a motivational speaker sharing those experiences with people and when he was with his family he didn't talk about that. He was granddad to us, and I commend my parents and grandparents for raising us that way – so that we always thought of him as granddad and not Jesse Owens, the icon.

"I always knew he was famous. I remember flipping through my ninth grade English book and there was a biography of my grandfather, so you got reminders like that. It does make you feel very special and proud."

And with very good reason. At the age of 45 – with a seven-year-old son, Llewellyn Jnr, who reckons he is faster than Owens – Dortch can fully appreciate the significance of what her beloved granddad achieved in Berlin 73 summers ago. "Absolutely," she says. "When you're a child you don't really conceptualise things in that way but certainly now I do. To think of how young he was and there he was in that stadium and one of the most horrific people in history, Hitler, was right there... But he'd gone there to fulfil a goal, a dream, and he did that. He didn't let any outside forces keep him from doing what he'd gone to do.

"And he continued to live his life that way. I so admire that about him – that he really paved the way for so many others, not just in track and field but especially in track and field. The things that he had to experience, certainly they don't have to experience today. But the way he lived his life, with grace and humility, through all of his experiences, was a tremendous example. I think that was great."

What Owens experienced after he scaled his Olympic peaks in Berlin was the sobering reality of a life back home where black people had to ride at the back of the bus and were routinely turned out of restaurants because of the colour of their skin. If there was uncertainty about the supposed snub he received from Adolf Hitler, there was no doubt about the response from Franklin D Roosevelt, the US president. Or rather, the lack of one. There was no White House reception for the US star of the Berlin Olympics. Roosevelt was scared of a backlash from southern voters.

You cannot but wonder what Owens would have thought about a member of his family being invited as a guest to the Olympiastadion in Berlin with an African-American president installed in the Oval Office back home. "Ah, he would have been so happy and so excited," Marlene Dortch ponders. "He certainly would have just been filled with joy to see me or any of our family, after what he experienced, go back to Berlin from an America with an African- American president.

"But he paved the way for all of these opportunities, even for my family. I am an attorney, the secretary of the Federal Communications Commission, a graduate of Georgetown University, and the law school at Ohio State University. My mother was a school teacher, a school administrator, and my aunt was a social worker, with a masters from the University of Chicago. My cousins are all accomplished people.

"And, really, my grandfather opened the door. He paved the way for all these opportunities. We've travelled the world. We've had so many opportunities and they really do stem from his experience and how he performed – not only in track, with his awesome feat, with those four Olympic gold medals, but the way that he carried himself, the way that he lived his life. It changed the course of our family's life.

"Just for me to go there, to Berlin, is a great honour. I know my granddad would be thrilled."

Life in fast lane Owens' story

James Cleveland owens Became known as Jesse after a schoolteacher asked for his name and misinterpreted "JC".

Born 12 September, 1913, in Danville, Alabama.

Family: His father, Henry Owens, was a sharecropper. His grandparents had been slaves.

In 45 minutes at Ann Arbor, Michigan, in May 1935, Owens equalled the 100 yards world record and then broke three world records: the long jump, the 220 yards and the 220 yards hurdles.

In August 1936 he won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics: 100 metres, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay.

Two weeks after the Games, he was banned by the Amateur Athletic Union for returning home instead of joining the US team on an extended European tour in Scandinavia.

After Berlin, he raced against horses and worked as a playground supervisor before becoming a motivational speaker.

He died of lung cancer on 31 March 1980, aged 66.

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