6:11 PM EDT, September 7, 2013
It is impossible to define Jesse Owens with mere numbers, for it would suggest that a life story so consequential could be told fully in quantifiable terms.
Yet a number is at the genesis of this remembrance, so it would not be wrong to begin with a few more to give perspective on just how extraordinary Owens was in simply athletic terms — for his time and for all time.
The 100th anniversary of his birth is Sept. 12. For one-fourth of that time, 25 years, his long jump of 26 feet, 81/4 inches at the 1935 Big Ten championships stood as the world record.
No track and field world record other than those set in the doping Wild West era of the 1980s has lasted as long.
Even more remarkable: At the 2012 Olympics, only two men jumped farther than Owens had on May 25, 1935.
And that jump distance was only one of the stunning numbers that record Owens' achievements during the greatest day any person ever had in the nearly 3,000-year history of track and field.
In just 75 minutes, the Ohio State sophomore won the long jump, 100-yard dash, 220-yard dash and 220-yard hurdles. He broke five world records (in the longer races, he ran faster than the times for the metric equivalents) and tied one, in the 100, where his time of 9.4 seconds would not be bettered for 13 years.
And those are not even the sports achievements for which James Cleveland Owens — called Jesse since an elementary school teacher heard him pronounce the initials "J.C." — is best remembered.
"What Jesse Owens achieved on the track is singular," said ESPN's Jeremy Schaap, author of "Triumph," an Owens biography. "That alone would put him among the handful of greatest athletes ever.
"What he achieved against the backdrop of the Berlin Olympics, in a country where he was officially something less than a full-fledged human being, with so much pressure, with his (financial) future literally at stake … all that makes his achievements the most spectacular in the history of sport."
Schaap's book fleshes out the rich, multiple dimensions of Owens' story and puts them in the context of their times.
It was an era when track and field ranked with baseball, boxing and college football as the most popular sports in the country, when a black champion still could not eat and sleep where he wanted in many parts of the United States (including on-campus housing at Ohio State), when Adolf Hitler had proclaimed blacks and Jews to be inferior races unworthy of German citizenship — or, as the Holocaust soon would prove, even of being alive.
A 22-year-old sharecropper's son from Alabama would be thrust into that environment and emerge triumphant. His four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics put the lie to Hitler's ideas about Aryan supremacy and gave black Americans a sporting hero to wear the mantle Joe Louis dropped briefly when he lost his first fight with Germany's Max Schmeling six weeks before the Berlin Summer Games.
"Jesse was the person who pointed the way," said Ralph Boston, who would break Owens' long jump world record in 1960. "Looking at what he did and how he did it, in the face of what was happening in the world at that time and of what had been done to him, you knew Jesse was the creme de la creme."
To look at it in athletic terms, a fine place to start is Bud Greenspan's 1964 film "Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin." The images of Owens running and jumping with the primitive equipment and track conditions of the time are compelling.
Owens and the other athletes had no starting blocks. They used trowels to dig holes to support their feet at the start of races. The tracks were cinder, and rain turned them to mud, especially in the inside lane where everyone congregated in any event longer than 400 meters. Jump runways deteriorated similarly in bad weather.
One only can imagine what Owens would have done running and jumping on the synthetic modern tracks that favor sprinters.
In the 100 meters, he drew the inside lane and tied the world record. In the 200 meters, with a middle lane but a light rain, he broke the Olympic record. In the long jump, on a rainy, windy day, he set an Olympic record (26-51/2) that lasted until Boston broke that one in 1960 as well. In the 400 relay, where the omission of Jewish sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller from the U.S. team owed plainly to anti-Semitism among U.S. officials all too willing to please Hitler, Owens ran the first leg, leading to a world record that lasted 20 years.
But for a couple of meaningless post-Olympic meets, that was the end of Owens' competitive career. His financial future was far from assured.
Ralph Boston was born in Mississippi three years after the Berlin Olympics. As he grew up, Owens already was both mythic and symbolic to a young black athlete in the South.
"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.
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