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Greatest 45 minutes ever in sports

It still looks like a misprint.

Four world records in three-quarters of an hour. Not 45 weeks or 45 days but 45 minutes.

Seventy-five years ago Tuesday, at the 1935 Big Ten Track and Field Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich., Jesse Owens didn't rewrite the record book -- he tore it up.

In less than an hour, the 21-year-old Ohio State sophomore tied the world record in the 100-yard dash and then set the world record in the long jump, the 220-yard dash and the 220 low hurdles.

One year later at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the black son of an Alabama sharecropper became an athletic legend when he grabbed Adolf Hitler's toxic theories of racial supremacy and stuffed them in the fuhrer's face by winning gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters, the long jump and the 4x100 relay.

Owens' dominant week in Berlin is part of American athletic lore, but his Olympic performances have been duplicated or surpassed. Carl Lewis won the same four events at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Speedskater Eric Heiden captured five gold medals at distances ranging from 500 to 10,000 meters at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games.

Swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, all in world-record time, over eight days at the 1972 Munich Games. Michael Phelps won eight golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

But Owens' one-day blockbuster in Ann Arbor has no parallel, not only in track and field but in any sport. It is the greatest single day performance in athletic history, superior to Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point outburst or to the Redskins' Sammy Baugh throwing four touchdown passes and adding an NFL record four interceptions in one game.

That Owens took care of business in less than an hour -- and with an injured back -- adds even more luster to a name that has always ranked near the top of American sports heroes.

"People are surprised at how competitive Owens would still be as an athlete today," said Robert Gary, the current Ohio State track and field coach and meet director of the annual Jesse Owens Track Classic in Columbus. "I don't think many people realize what a phenomenal athlete he was."

Indeed, 75 years later, Owens still holds the Buckeyes' school record in the long jump.

Owens' time in the national spotlight was short -- only about four years. He first drew attention when he tied the 100-yard dash world record of 9.4 seconds as a Cleveland high school senior in 1933. He followed with a record four individual titles at both the 1935 and 1936 NCAA championships (Owens scored 40 of the Buckeyes' 40.2 points at the '35 meet) and then exited track shortly after draping himself in glory in Berlin.

But if Owens' career was abbreviated in years it was long on achievement, and never more so than at Michigan's Ferry Field on May 25, 1935.

At the start of the day, Owens didn't know if he could finish even one event. He had injured his lower back falling down the stairs five days earlier while roughhousing with his fraternity brothers and was still hurting as he warmed up.

After debating with Ohio State track coach Larry Snyder on whether to compete, Owens decided to take it one event at a time.

And what a time it was.

3:15 p.m. 100: After a slow start Owens' tremendous acceleration put him ahead at 30 yards. His official winning time of 9.4 seconds tied the world record, yet more than half of the race's official timers clocked him in 9.3, a new world mark. Rules of the day, however, stipulated that a runner be given his slowest time. The first official 9.3 100 would have to wait for 1948.

3:25 p.m. Long jump: Owens needed just one leap to improve the world record by more than a half-foot to 26 feet 8¼ inches. Only Bob Beamon's legendary 29-2½ jump at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics has improved the long jump record by a greater distance. Beamon's altitude-aided record lasted 23 years. Owens' mark lasted 25. Seventy-three years later at the 2008 Olympics, Owens' 1935 jump would have placed seventh.

"The scary part to me always has been how good Owens was for the very little long jump training he did," said Jon Hendershott, associate editor of Track and Field News. "And the back problem restricted him to just a single jump at the '35 Big Ten. Yet he set a world record that lasted for a quarter-century. Pretty stunning stuff."

3:34 p.m. 220: Until the 1960s, the 220 in the United States often was run on a straightaway rather than on a curve, and the sight of the smooth-striding Owens in full flight over a furlong must have been breathtaking. Owens ran 20.3 seconds to crush the old mark of 20.6. Because the 220 is more than a yard longer than 200 meters, Owens also received credit for breaking the world 200 straightaway record.

Ohio State's Gary said photos of the 220 make it appear "like no one else is in the race."

4 p.m. 220 low hurdles: Low hurdles stand only 2 feet, 6 inches (high hurdles are a foot taller), allowing Owens, who was not a gifted hurdler, to use his great speed between the barriers to defeat more technically superior opponents. He became the first runner to break 23 seconds with a time of 22.6 to win by five yards. He also received credit for the 200-meter hurdle record. The low hurdles event was discontinued at U.S. national meets after 1962.

Owens had averaged a world record every 11 minutes. To find a similar scale of achievement one has to journey to the realm of art and think of Mozart needing only six weeks to compose his final three symphonies in the summer of 1788 or of Shakespeare writing Henry V, Julius Caesar and As You Like It in the same year.

Owens, perhaps the smoothest sprinter of all time, was an athletic artist and with each record the Ferry Field crowd of 5,000 cheered louder. So many fans wanted to congratulate Owens after the meet that he had to leave the locker room through a bathroom window.

He was a national story and would join boxer Joe Louis as the best-known black athlete in the country. His startling achievement impressed even those not normally associated with sports.

Humorist Will Rogers observed: "Mr. Owens ... broke practically all the world records ... with the possible exception of horseshoe pitching and flagpole sitting."

Honors and financial opportunities were slow to flow Owens' way. For all the talk of being snubbed by Hitler at the '36 Olympics (some reports say the German leader actually offered a small wave to the American champion), Owens always said he was more upset by never having received recognition from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In neither 1935 nor 1936 did he win the Sullivan Award, emblematic of the nation's top amateur athlete.

Only weeks after his historic triumph in Berlin, he was suspended by the Amateur Athletic Union for not competing in a minor track meet in Sweden. Owens preferred to get back to the U.S. to see his family and take advantage of endorsement opportunities that, ultimately, failed to materialize.

White Olympic swimmers like Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe could play Tarzan in the movies. Such avenues weren't open to Owens. To make money he had to run in exhibitions against horses.

Finally, in 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower honored Owens as an "ambassador of sport" and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Gerald Ford in 1976. He also worked as a roving ambassador for Ford Motor Company and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

A decades-long cigarette habit eventually caught up with Owens and he died of lung cancer in 1980 at the age of 66.

Owens' records seem almost quaint today. Jamaica's Usain Bolt can run 100 meters about as fast as Owens covered 100 yards even though the metric sprint is more than 9 yards longer.

Bolt, however, doesn't compete in the hurdles or the long jump. Unlike Owens, he doesn't run on dirt tracks or without the benefit of starting blocks.

With prize money and commercial endorsements now permissible in international track and field, Bolt can train year round and doesn't have to work in a gas station as Owens did in college. Bolt can compete as long as his body allows him. Owens last raced when he was 22.

One can speculate what Owens might have accomplished had he competed longer. Carl Lewis recorded his best marks in the 100 meters and long jump when he was 30.

Maybe Owens would have run a 10.1 100 meters, which wasn't accomplished until 1956, or notched the first 27-foot long jump, which didn't happen until 1961.

Yet considering how transcendent Owens was at Ann Arbor and again at Berlin, it would be like asking Michelangelo to touch up the Sistine Chapel or for Mark Twain to rework Huckleberry Finn.

The masterpieces speak for themselves.

As Hendershott noted, Owens' day of days in Ann Arbor "is likely never to be equaled, let alone beaten, in any sport."

Ferry Field still stands. Outside the track a plaque commemorates Owens' record-shattering day. It is, perhaps, the ultimate compliment in college sports that a University of Michigan athletic facility continues to honor the achievements of an Ohio State Buckeye.

Richard Rothschild is a longtime track and field writer and editor who lives outside of Chicago.

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