Nov. 29, 1999
Nov. 29, 1999

Table of Contents
Nov. 29, 1999

20th Century Celebration
Sports Illustrated 20th Century Sports Awards


You were a child, a dark-skinned child, and you knew Jesse Owens
before you even knew why. He had been a sprinter and a broad
jumper, that much you understood; but there was something more
than just his speed that made black folk, even people who cared
nothing about sports, swell their chests a little bit at the
mention of his name. There was this one time when your house was
full, loud with laughter, and a distinguished-looking older man
appeared on the television screen. "Isn't that Jesse?" somebody
asked. "Hush, that's Jesse." And there was silence while Jesse
Owens spoke.

This is an article from the Nov. 29, 1999 issue

He was in his 50's by then, and the young Owens, the one older
people saw in their mind's eye, was a spectral figure to you.
Even after you understood what he had done, how he had mortified
Adolf Hitler by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin
Olympics, he seemed unreal, and that murky black-and-white
newsreel of his Olympic performance only made him more so. As he
raced past his competitors he was more idea than man, a charcoal
rebuttal to Nazi notions of Aryan supremacy.

You cannot truly say you wish you had been there in Berlin to
see him win the broad jump and the 100- and 200-meter dashes,
and run the first leg for the victorious 4x100-meter relay
team--not in that place at that time in history. Merely being in
the stadium on those muggy August days would not have been
enough to truly grasp the flesh and blood of it anyway. To do
that you would have had to be down on the infield with him for
the second event, the broad jump, in which his main competitor
was one of Hitler's most prized athletes, Luz Long. Owens, the
world-record holder in the event, had fouled on the first two of
his three qualifying jumps. Now he was in a state of panic--his
third jump would be his last chance to advance. Failure would
not just humiliate him, it would also give credence to the vile
theories of Hitler, who, after Owens had won the 100, had said,
"The Americans should be ashamed of themselves, letting Negroes
win their medals for them. I shall not shake hands with this

It was after Owens's second foul in the broad jump that Long, of
all people, approached him. "What has taken your goat?" he
asked, making Owens smile at the mangled American idiom. They
talked briefly, and Long offered words of encouragement and
advice, suggesting that Owens start farther back on his approach
to make sure he didn't foul. Calmed, Owens sailed past the
qualifying distance on his third jump and later that day beat
Long for the gold medal with a leap of 26'5 1/4", then an
Olympic record. The two men cemented their bond later in the
Olympic Village, talking well into the night about athletics and
art, about race and politics. Those were the moments you wish
you could have witnessed, when two competitors of different
races, with different allegiances, found common ground.

Owens returned to the U.S. a hero, but after the commotion died
down, he was still a black man in 1930s America. Less than a
year after the Olympics, unable to find a job with both dignity
and a paycheck big enough to pay his college tuition, he had to
lower himself to racing exhibitions against horses three times a
week. Five cents of every dollar people paid to watch the
spectacle went into Owens's pocket. Even that couldn't diminish
his stature in the eyes of people who remembered those days in
Berlin. Nor could it diminish him in the eyes of a dark-skinned
child who was told the tale.

Now there is another child, very much like the boy you once
were, and he sees Owens's picture on the book in your hand. You
ask him if he knows who Jesse Owens was, and he says he has
heard the name. Now it is time to tell him why.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY C.F. PAYNE With help from a most unlikely source, Owens soared to a gold medal and rebuked a regime.