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Jesse Owens: A giant among men

ESPN staff
June 21, 2012
Jesse Owens salutes during the presentation of his gold medal after winning the long jump © PA Photos
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As the London 2012 Games draw ever closer, we take a look at arguably the greatest moment in the history of the Olympic Games...

The story seems a simple one. Berlin, awash with Nazi propaganda and sentiment, is stunned by the remarkable success of the one man who dominated the 1936 Berlin Olympics - an African-American grandson of slave-owners called Jesse Owens.

Adolf Hitler was so disgusted that his disciples of the Aryan race had been overshadowed by, in his warped mind, an inferior human-being, that he refused to hang around to dish out the medals. At least one blond-haired, blue-eyed muscle-bound German showed humility - long-jumper Luz Long - who helped his rival and embraced him at the end. Yet even that long-established tale has been cast into doubt in some quarters.

So it's best to stick with the facts. The man who had broken three world records (and equalled another) inside 45 minutes a year earlier, despite suffering from a back injury in Michigan, was the star of this show. Already world-renowned, he struck gold in the 100 metres, 200 metres, long jump (then the broad jump) and 4x100 metre relay.

First up was the 100m sprint with his closest competitor emerging from his own team - another African-American in the shape of Ralph Metcalfe, who would go on to share glory in the relay. An Olympic record was set in the longer sprint race, the 200m, as a time of 20.7 seconds proved enough to beat Mack Robinson into second place.

The long jump turned into a battle with the excellent Long, with Owens on the brink of missing out on qualification after two failed jumps, even if he thought one was merely a practice effort. The story goes that Long consulted the American and helped him mark a foot back from the board but this has since been disputed by eye-witnesses. In any case, Owens qualified for the final and ended up producing two leaps that exceeded the German's best effort. Long sportingly congratulated the victor and, although they never met again, this was a touching moment which clearly meant a lot to Owens.

"You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment," he later recalled.

It should have been only a hat-trick of golds for the 'Buckeye Bullet' but both he and Metcalfe received late call-ups to the relay team in place of Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman. The word was the Jewish sprinters were withdrawn under pressure from the hosts although quite how the first two home in the 100m final hadn't made the initial quartet must have been a little surprising.

The United States won by a distance, setting a new world record that would not be broken for 20 years, and this was the easiest of Owens' triumphs and one that completed the set.

Jesse Owens breaks the tape to win gold © PA Photos
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The whole tale has been idealised over the subsequent years. Owens himself was subjected to appalling racism in his own country and this was not merely a triumph of good over evil. Although afforded a ticker-tape welcome back in New York, he was also cheered by the 110,000 fans in Berlin after dominating the Games.

"After all those stories about Hitler and his snub, I came back to my native country, and I couldn't ride in the front of the bus," he complained. "I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. Now what's the difference?"

Some basic human rights remained off limits for the champion back home in the States due to racial segregation. It's perhaps an indication of the lack of respect he was given that he ended up racing horses, cars and motorcycles as a kind of sideshow in order to make money.

There has even been the suggestion that Hitler did indeed shake his hand in Berlin and also at a function at the Reich Chancellory, although some of the comments attributed to the German leader about African-Americans in general not only defy belief but firmly belong in a bygone era.

Not that it really should overshadow an epic feat of Olympian achievement and the plaudits that rightly came with it. German boxing world champion Max Schmelling commented: "Mr Owens is the most perfect athlete I have ever seen." Former United States president Jimmy Carter said: "Perhaps no athlete better symbolised the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry."

But enough of the politicising and focus on what Jesse Owens stands for. "Regardless of his colour, a man who becomes a recognised athlete has to learn to walk 10 feet tall," said the sporting superstar. He was truly a giant among men.

What happened next?
Owens died of lung cancer at the age of 66 after taking up smoking in his retirement. He thankfully moved into public speaking after being forced to take up jobs like playground janitor and a disc jockey on his return to the United States.

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