Jesse Owens transcends all races

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"To me, what he did meant I have a chance," Boston said. "As an African-American, he opened the door for a lot of people in a lot of things."

By the time Boston reached the pinnacle of his career, winning gold, silver and bronze medals in the three Olympics of the 1960s, Owens' image in the black community had changed.

Owens was admired by whites in the same way Joe Louis and Michael Jordan would be: as a non-confrontational black superstar whose words and actions did not make whites feel uncomfortable. But Owens alienated many blacks by condemning the proposed boycott of the 1968 Summer OIympics by U.S. black athletes tired of being treated as second-class citizens in their own country.

"Some people saw him as an Uncle Tom and a gradualist," Schaap said. "What he and Joe Louis did was introduce all Americans to black athletes. Jesse was a handsome, gracious, gentlemanly guy and the first step to a world in which guys like Michael Jordan can be the most popular athlete in America."

My colleague Bill Rhoden of the New York Times, who incisively has chronicled the role of black athletes in the American cultural fabric, is among those whose view of Owens has changed. Rhoden touched on that evolution while making a persuasive case for Owens as the greatest Olympian ever in a New York Times video last year.

"No one has faced down history and performed with as much grace and international scrutiny as Owens did in Berlin," Rhoden said. "He stared down Adolf Hitler, and he did it by allowing his actions to speak loudly to the world.

"He dealt with critics from my generation who felt Owens and too many African-Americans of his generation were far too deferential. We never appreciated until we got older what Owens and his generation had to endure, what they overcame."

Nearly everyone of Owens' generation has died. Boston, 74, worries that as he and others of his generation pass on, Owens' name may lose some of its resonance.

So far, fortunately, that does not seem to be the case, at least for track athletes.

Michael Johnson, who grew up in a middle-class black family in Texas, won four Olympic gold medals with a running style that recalled Owens' feet-on-hot-coals quick turnover and upright chest. At the 1995 worlds, when Johnson became the first man to win the 200 and 400 at a global championship, some also began comparing his achievements to those of Owens.

"Jesse Owens is at a level no one else is able to get to," Johnson said then. "A lot of things he suffered as an athlete, we can't even understand because of the freedoms we have."

In 2009, the Berlin Olympic Stadium was host to the worlds, the first meet for a U.S. team since the 1936 Olympics at the renovated but still austere Nazi rock pile. The U.S. athletes had the initials "J.O." above the heart on their uniforms and the man himself on their minds.

U.S. men's head coach Harvey Glance decided to emphasize the connection to Owens in team meetings. He found it wasn't necessary.

"I was very shocked the majority of the team knew the history," Glance said. "That is how iconic Jesse Owens really was."

Owens died in 1980, at 66. His last name appears three times on the Berlin Olympic Stadium's outer granite wall, where the names of all the 1936 Olympic champions are listed.

On that rock, Jesse Owens is the one for the ages.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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