December 8, 2023

By Ahmet Abdulaziz….

Racism had always been the most cruel factor to degrade a human being. The colour of skin has been a vital factor in deciding the fate of some very important personalities of the world, more so in the field of sports.

Jessie Owens – Wikipedia photo

Jesse Owens, one of the finest athletes that the world of athletics ever witnessed, happened to compete not only against his competitors on the track, but also against the menace of all times, racism.  He was born at a time in America when racism was at its peak. Though anti-racism movements had started showing their effects on social behaviour and government policies, still there was a long way to go.

Jesse Owens had a number of world records to his name when he won 4 gold medals in a row in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was a feat that no other athlete had ever achieved until then. He had won these gold medals in 100 meters, 200 meters, 4x100m relay and long jump, in the summer heat of August 1936, in Berlin. The games were also watched by Hitler.

Through the whole of his life, Jesse, found the colour of his skin an obstacle along the way. He was denied scholarships for his studies, so he had to work hard along with his studies and sports. He was usually not allowed to stay in the hotel where his fellow white athletes were staying. He always found it difficult to find a fitting job for himself.

Running against horses was such job, that Jesse had invented himself.

Back from the Olympics, after winning America 4 precious gold medals, he was stripped of his amateur status, as he had accepted some lucrative sponsorship offers. Thus his career as an athlete immediately came to an abrupt end. He was no more able to represent the USA in any international athletics competitions, including the Olympics.

The sponsorship deals faded quickly, and Owens once again had to find jobs to keep his life going. With racism still prevailing in the USA, Jesse Owens, the national hero, was finding it difficult to find a job. He worked at gas station as an attendant. He also worked as a playground janitor and manager of a dry cleaning firm.  However, he added a variety by starting show running against amateurs and also against horses.

Running against horses was something new, which made Owens popular. He used to challenge and defeat racehorses. As he told, his trick was to race a high-strung thoroughbred that would be frightened by the shot of the starter pistol, which  would make the horse  jump, and give sufficient time for Owens to defeat the horse.

So he used to win against the horse through this trick. A section of sports observers were against his competition with horses. However, the response of Owens was very realistic and exhibits the realities of those days. He said, “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”

How true that was.

However, late in his life, when the American laws and regulations against racism became more and more effective, Owens started getting better recognition.

As listed in Wikipedia, the following are some important honours that Jesse Owens was given during the later years of his life.

  • 1970: He was inducted into the “Alabama Sports Hall of Fame”.
  • 1976: awarded “Presidential Medal of Freedom”.
  • 1976: inducted into Silver Olympic Order for his quadruple victory in the 1936 Olympics and his defense of sports and the ethics of sport.
  • 1979: awarded “Living Legend Award” by President Jimmy Carter.
  • 1984: a street south of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin was renamed as Jesse Owens Allee
  • 1990: posthumously awarded the “Congressional Gold Medal” by President George H.W. Bush.
  • 1990 and 1998 : Two U.S. Postage Stamps have been issued to honour Owens.
  • 1999: ranked the sixth greatest North American athlete of the twentieth century.
  • 1999: on the six-man shortlist for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Century.
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