Part 2 of a two-part series.
A part of this story that I feel is too often forgotten is the experience of James “Jesse” Cleveland Owens.
As the Nazi athletes were earning their medals with the U.S. coming in a close second, there was this Black athlete from Cleveland, Ohio who was totally disproving the whole myth of Hitler’s Aryan supremacy.
From the beginning, Jesse Owens was dominant. He “came to national attention when he was a student of East Technical High-School in Cleveland: he equaled the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100 yards (9.1 m) dash and long-jumped 24 feet 91/2 inches (7.56 m) at the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago.
“He achieved international fame at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, by winning four gold medals; 100-meter, long jump, 200 meters, and 4 x 100- meter relay. He was the most successful athlete at the Games.”
Born in Alabama, he moved to Cleveland with his family with that great migration north to take advantage of work opportunities in the north.
According to Wikipedia’s well-researched article, “The Jesse Owens Award is USA Track and Field’s highest accolade for the year’s best track and field athlete.
Owens was ranked by ESPN as the sixth greatest North American athlete of the 20th Century and the highest-ranked in his sport. In 1999, he was on the six-man short-list for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Century.”
Even in the presence of this unequaled sport icon, Ohio State could not find a niche that gave him special presence. “When he traveled with the team, Owens was restricted to ordering carry-out or eating at ‘Blacks-only’ restaurants. Similarly, he had to stay at “Blacks-only” hotels. Owens did not receive a scholarship for his efforts, so he continued to work part-time jobs to pay for school.”
What has this athlete who stands above all others at Ohio State receive as recognition? The track is named in his honor – but where is the statue?
Do colleges honor their greats with statues? I would suggest you start in Terre Haute, Indiana and view the 15-foot statue of Larry Bird, but don’t stop there. Innumerable colleges have statues of their outstanding athletes and coaches on their campuses.
In years to come, three Presidential Decrees were bestowed upon Owens:
• 1955: Presidential Medal of Freedom — by President Gerald Ford
• 1979: Awarded Living Legend Award — by President Jimmy Carter.
• 1990: President Congressional Medal of Honor — by President George H. W. Bush.
Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.