Jesse Owens — a charming champion

In 1936 he shattered the myth of “Aryan supremacy” propagated by Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics

July 26, 2012 12:10 am | Updated 12:10 am IST

Jesse Owens (right) at The Hindu office in 1955.

Jesse Owens (right) at The Hindu office in 1955.

In a wonderful photo feature in LIFE magazine in the year 1955 when James Cleveland ‘Jesse’ Owens visited India on a goodwill mission, an Indian naval officer seeing Owens getting decorated in a turban remarked, “All he needs is a beard and he would pass for a Sikh one day.” The magazine headlined the story thus: ‘A famous athlete’s diplomatic debut’.

It was a terrific debut, if one could say that. Forty-two years of age then, Owens, an African-American, fit as a fiddle, charmed the audience in Bombay, New Delhi and Madras with scintillating speeches and magnetic personality, forcing a columnist to say, “He’s a darling of many a heart.”

At his peak in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Owens, 23, captured the hearts of one and all with a fantastic feat — winning four gold medals and in the process shattering the myth of “Aryan supremacy” propagated by Adolf Hitler.

The Chancellor of Germany, Hitler, did not want either Jews or Africans to participate in the quadrennial event but when faced with the threat of boycott, he relented.

In six magical days, Owens cornered all the attention winning three of the four events pretty convincingly. He ran the 100m in a time of 10.3sec, edging out Ralph Metcalfe, also an African-American, and in 200m, he won in an Olympic record of 20.7sec, beating Mack Robinson comfortably.

Owens then led the American 4x100m relay team to a world record time of 39.8sec, a feat that would last 20 years.

It was in long jump that Owens encountered a stiff challenge from Luz Long of Germany. The American committed two fouls in the qualifying round but finally made the cut at 7.15m.

In a close battle between Long and Owens in the final, the American leaped to 8.06m in the final attempt to clinch the gold.

It wasn’t an easy life after Berlin for Owens. The blacks were victims of intense prejudice in USA and despite him trying, Owens failed to land a decent job.

He dabbled in many things: race promoter, a dry cleaning business, racing against horses and even working as a petrol pump attendant.

Only in the 1950s did Owens manage to achieve some sort of financial stability when he became a public speaker.

Author Hank Nuwer, who wrote the book ‘The Legend of Jesse Owens’ said, “Jesse Owens excelled at life long after his athletic abilities were gone. He learned to manage his money and became quite wealthy from his speaking engagements.

“More than that, he was a positive influence on many young people in this country. The memory of Jesse Owens will last forever.”

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