As the 2012 Summer Olympics in London approach, a new PBS documentary takes a look back at one of America’s most celebrated Olympic heroes: Jesse Owens.
The track and field star became the first African American to win four gold medals at a modern-day Olympics — but his fame also stemmed from the racism he faced during the 1936 games in Berlin, Germany.
The Nazi Party had come to power a few years before, and Adolf Hitler wanted to use the Olympics to showcase the superiority of the Aryan race. Owens’ victories proved otherwise.
“More than 75 years later, so many themes in Owens’ life still resonate today,” said the film’s producer and director, Laurens Grant, “themes of trying to overcome barriers, trying to overcome personal hardship and build across barriers.”
Owens grew up in Cleveland, the son of sharecroppers who had migrated north from Alabama. His speed was evident from a young age, and he later won a scholarship to Ohio State University, where he was not allowed to live on the segregated campus. Even so, he was appointed captain of the track team, becoming the first African American to lead a sports team at the university. In 1936, Owens earned a spot on the American Olympic team.
In Berlin, Owens easily won his first event, the 100-meter dash, equaling the world record with a time of 10.3 seconds. As he took to the medal stand, Hitler, who as head of state was presiding over the games, rebuffed the custom of congratulating the winner.
“Do you really think I will allow myself to be photographed shaking hands with a Negro?” he said.
In his second event, the long jump, Owens faced a difficult competitor — a blonde-haired, blue-eyed German named Luz Long. Owens bested him, jumping 26 feet, but in a show of racial solidarity, he and Long, who won silver, walked arm in arm around the stadium.
Owens won the 200-meter dash the following day, bringing his gold medal count up to three, and thought his work was done. But at the last minute, American officials pulled two Jewish runners from the relay team, and told Owens and another black runner to step in. Owens had reservations about the switch, realizing the Americans had capitulated to Hitler’s policy that no Jews could participate in the games. He ran anyway, and won a fourth gold medal.
“That was part of the dirty politics of sports that still resonates today,” Grant said. “Jesse was caught in that firestorm. At the time, there was no template for how to behave, or what to say, when they yank two Jewish players off the relay and put you in.”
When he returned to the United States, Owens expected a hero’s welcome. Instead, he was greeted with the same racism he had grown up with. “I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president either,” Owens later said.
On his first night back in the country, the only New York hotel that would house Owens and his wife required the couple to enter through the service door.
Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, then suspended Owens from the Amateur Athletic Union for his failure to complete a promotional tour for the American track team, immediately ending his athletic career. And when promised endorsement deals suddenly disappeared, Owens was left without any money. So to support his family, Owens resorted to racing horses around a track.
“People say it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do?” the athlete later said. “I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
He fell into bankruptcy, and was sued by the U.S. government for failing to pay his taxes.
“I think his heart was broken,” Louis Zamperini, a fellow member of the 1936 American Olympic team, says in the film. “After winning all those gold medals, he expected the whole nation to love him. And here the greatest athlete in America is being treated shabbily.”
“I think it says a lot about how we treat our heroes and what we want from our heroes,” Grant added. “Society has a complicated relationship with hero worship. When it’s great, we’re all behind them, but if they fall, we turn away.”
Grant’s film concludes by showing Owens’ eventual redemption — being appointed a goodwill ambassador by the United States in 1955, and finally winning endorsement deals — but ignores another complicated aspect of Owens’ life. During the 1968 Olympics — which would become famous for Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ black power salute on the medal stand — Avery Brundage sent Owens to Mexico City to discourage black athletes from any sort of protest during the games. Critics called Owens an “Uncle Tom.”
“Owens was of a different generation,” Grant explained. “Perhaps in his view, as the son of a sharecropper who went to the Olympics and won four gold medals, he thought, yes, things are tough, but they’re better than they were for me.”
“Owens is a hero, but he’s also a human being,” Grant added.
In his 1972 autobiography, “I Have Changed,” Owens expressed regret over these events. Eight years later, at the age of 66, Owens died of lung cancer.
Whatever mistakes he may have made along the way, Grant said Owens’ life has lessons for today: “His life is a huge lesson that if you do something you’re passionate about, you can make it work. Life will throw you some blows and some hard knocks, but if you keep going, you will be able to overcome them.”
The film “Jesse Owens” premieres Tuesday, May 1 at 8 p.m. on PBS.