American Experience: Jesse Owens

Year: 2012

Year: NR

American Olympic legend Jesse Owens’ rise as a young track star began in Cleveland, where his natural talents were noticed in junior high school by a white coach who took him under his wing. By the time he was in high school, he was already a track star, so that Ohio State lured him to their great track program. As a college student, he broke three world records in one event, and became the great hope for the upcoming Olympics.

Showing that celebrity is the same as it always has been, when Jesse Owens became a track star, he went West for the first time, leaving his girlfriend and daughter, and stepping out with socialites in California. When he began losing races, Owens got his act together, moving home and marrying his girlfriend, and began preparing for the Games.

In 1936, Hitler’s Germany hosted the Olympic Games in Berlin. The city had been chosen as the host city 5 years earlier, before the rise of the Nazi Party. Because of the Nazis, there was controversy about whether the U.S. should participate in the Games. Athletes were urged by the public to boycott the Games, even though the offical stance was to participate to maintain relations with Germany. Jesse Owens felt that if there were minorities that were being discriminated against in Germany, then the U.S. should withdraw. But when the American Olympic Committee (aka one man) proclaimed Germany fit to host, the athlete boycott fizzled.

The footage of the races and the games are fabulous, as are the tales of Hitler dissing Owens by refusing to congratulate a black man for winning gold medals. But my favorite part of the story was about his relationship with white Aryan German long jumper Luz Long, walking arm in arm with him off the podium after stiff but friendly competition. Hitler must have been furious! Owens’ long jump record ended up lasting for decades.

After watching an hour of footage of Jesse Owens’ life an amazing athletic story, I wanted more. But considering the footage, when it was available, was mostly from the 1930s, it is impressive and fortunate that there are so much stunning footage to enjoy in the first place. It was sad to here that despite his legend status, his moment in the spotlight of celebrity was short lived and even abused (watch him race horses!). Still, what an amazing story.

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