I knew the basics of the Jesse Owens story—how this grandson of a slave overcame extreme poverty and bigotry to win four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and leave Adolf Hitler’s theory of Aryan superiority in the dust.
But it wasn’t until I saw the new biopic “Race” that I learned about the enormity of the double-barreled pressure Owens was under. It was pressure not only from the racists, who bombarded him with unrelenting epithets and slurs, but also from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Not long before Owens was to board the ocean liner to cross the Atlantic for Germany, a representative from the NAACP urged him to boycott the Games in order to send a powerful message to the world regarding Hitler’s policies toward people of color and Jews.
Hollywood, of course, has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story, but this tale was indeed true. And according to Owens’ three living daughters, it weighed heavily on his mind. He ultimately decided to go, which meant the burden to win—and win emphatically—would become even greater.
Owens, played adroitly by actor Stephan James, would be running not only for himself, but also for an America still ruled by the ugliness and hatred of segregation. On the track and long-jump pit, Owens discovered freedom from prejudice, politics and propaganda. There, you were judged not by the color of your skin or your ethnicity or your religion, but by your performance.
Owens turned in one of the most memorable sports performances of the 20th century while in Berlin. And the movie does a good job capturing that triumph over unfathomable challenges. It also sheds light on the special bond Owens formed with his white Ohio State track coach, Larry Snyder, who swam against the powerful currents of the times by recruiting African-American athletes in an era when many colleges didn’t even admit black students. (Interestingly, there were no blacks on the Buckeyes football team at the time.)
In the movie’s most sentimental moment, Carl “Luz” Long, Owens’ German challenger in the long jump, gives Jesse some advice that helps him not only win the event, but also establish a world record. Long also expresses his loathing of the Nazi agenda, and the two men become friends. In the cases of Owens’ relationships with Snyder and Long, Hollywood doesn’t take much license. The stories are true.
This biopic, like the one about Jackie Robinson a few years ago, concentrates on a small slice of a story that occurred 80 years ago this summer. What it doesn’t get into is the enormous challenge Owens encountered upon his return to the United States. Yes, there was a ticker-tape parade in which he was given a hero’s welcome by tens of thousands. But it didn’t take long for Owens to go from feeling like a conquering hero to feeling like a second-class citizen. And what he faced was similar to what Robinson and boxer Joe Louis endured when they stepped away from the ball diamond and boxing ring, respectively.
Just like gold-medal-winning swimmer Johnny Weissmuller had done following the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, Owens headed to Hollywood in hopes of parlaying his golden performance into an acting career. Weissmuller actually became more famous for playing Tarzan on the silver screen than swimming for gold. So, the precedent was there for Owens. Sadly, America was not ready to accept a black screen star, and he was forced to hit the road to pursue a vaudeville acting career, where he had moderate success.
His decision to bolt for Hollywood following the 1936 Games did not sit well with officials from the Amateur Athletic Union because they had planned a post-Olympic world tour with Owens as its main attraction. The tour would have made millions for the AAU, but not a single cent for Owens during this time when only amateurs could compete in Olympic-style competitions. The organization became so angry with Owens’ decision that it stripped him of his eligibility, meaning he would not be allowed to compete in future meets, nationally and internationally.
In order to provide food, shelter and clothing for his wife and children, Owens worked a series of odd jobs, everything from pumping gas to running races against horses and baseball players at ballparks across the United States. Some ripped him for doing this, saying he was tainting his golden image. But Owens didn’t care. “What was I going to do?” he reflected years later. “I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four medals.”
Eventually, Owens made a career as an inspirational speaker. I had the good fortune of listening to him speak at my high school many moons ago. He was quite engaging, and it was a thrill to shake his hand afterward.
Like Robinson and Louis, Owens was forced to endure backlash from many African-Americans during the height of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. Kenneth Shropshire, a University of Pennsylvania professor who specializes in race, sports law and leadership, told the New York Times recently that “no athlete was called an ‘Uncle Tom’ more than Jesse Owens.” This stereotype intensified when Owens, at the behest of International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage, tried to discourage black athletes from protesting American racism at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. Sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith ignored Owens, raising their fists in a black power salute during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” following their medal-winning performances.
Thirty-two years earlier, Owens had been ignored by the president of the United States when Franklin Roosevelt didn’t invite him to the White House. Fortunately, in 1976, four years before Owens died, Gerald Ford attempted to heal that snub by inviting the Olympic champion to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
I highly recommend “Race.” But I also recommend you check out Laurens Grant’s “Jesse Owens,” which was part of PBS’s American Experience series. “Race,” like the Robinson biopic “42,” is well done. But there’s much, much more to the story of a courageous, complicated man who did his best to battle bigotry.
Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.
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