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Jesse Owens’ moment: the 1936 Olympics

In his new book, “Triumph,” Jeremy Schaap writes about the athlete's wins.
/ Source: TODAY

There have been many great Olympic athletes throughout history. But only one, Jesse Owens, continues to be called the greatest of all time. But his defining moment came during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Against a backdrop of Nazi Germany, swastikas and Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy, a 22-year-old-African American, who was a son of sharecroppers, did the unthinkable: He won four gold medals and captured international fame. Jeremy Schaap, an ESPN anchor and correspondent, was invited on TODAY to discuss his new book, “Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics.” Read an excerpt:
Prologue Just before 9:30 p.m. central time on September 23, 1955, in a handsome townhouse on Chicago’s South Side, James Cleveland Owens slipped into a tweed jacket and sat down in a straight-backed chair. As he smoothed out his pencil mustache and slicked back his hair — what little was left of it — a dozen technicians put the finishing touches on what had been an all day job, wiring and lighting the Owens home. In a few minutes, Owens would be talking live on national television with Edward R. Murrow of CBS, on his celebrity interview show Person to Person. More than 20 million Americans would watch as Murrow spoke from a studio in New York via satellite, first with Owens and his family, and then, in the second half of the show, with Leonard Bernstein and his.

A forty-two-year-old father of three, Jesse Owens weighed twenty-five pounds more than he had in Berlin in 1936, when he had turned in the most indelible performance ever at the Olympic games. In his conservative jacket, flannel slacks, white shirt, and dark tie, he could have passed for a fifty-year-old. Not that he wasn’t in superb shape. He was. In fact, just a few months earlier he had run 100 yards in 9.9 seconds, less than a second slower than his personal best. He still held the world record in both the broad jump (now called the long jump) and the 4 x 100-meter relay — though both records had been set in the mid-1930s.For his part, Murrow was readying himself for another half-hour of banalities. No one confused Person to Person with See It Now, Murrow’s other show on CBS, the one on which eighteen months earlier he had neutered Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite the fluff, Murrow was eager to speak with Owens, whose legend had grown significantly since 1936. Here, Murrow thought, was a legitimate American hero, the man who had humbled the Third Reich.

For Owens, the appearance with Murrow was emblematic of his enhanced stature. In the first fifteen years after his athletic career ended, he had struggled to find his way, professionally and financially. He made more money than the vast majority of his fellow Americans — in the dry-cleaning business, at Ford Motors, working for the state of Illinois — but the windfall he expected in the aftermath of his Olympic heroics never materialized. Banned from amateur competition after an imbroglio with American track officials, he had raced against horses — most famously in Havana, in December 1936, defeating Julio McCaw, a five-year-old bay gelding, after the horse spotted him a 40-yard advantage. In 1938, on the occasion of the first night baseball game at Ebbets Field, he raced two speedy major-league outfielders, spotting them several yards. He barnstormed with a black baseball team and campaigned for the Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon. In countless ways, he sold himself — but he never had much to show for it. Until now.

By the time Owens sat down to speak with Murrow, he was well on his way to becoming an institution — the Jesse Owens who would spend the rest of his life telling his story to appreciative audiences around the world, the Jesse Owens who could have been a hero from Horatio Alger, if Alger’s heroes had not all been white. In the years after his Olympic victories, his achievements in Berlin had been overshadowed by World War II. But by 1955, at the end of the first decade of the cold war, he was finally getting his due. He was in demand as a banquet speaker and making good money because he had become useful — to industry and government — as a symbol of the opportunities America promised and sometimes delivered. To the delight of white America and most of black America, he disputed the sentiments of Paul Robeson, the All-American football player turned actor/ singer, who famously suggested that African-Americans would not and should not fight for the United States in the event of war with the Soviet Union. Owens, in contrast, held himself out as an example of what black Americans could achieve, despite the indignities and slights he had suffered his entire life. He agreed with Jackie Robinson, who in his 1949 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee had said that blacks had too much invested in the American experiment to support its enemies.Just a few days after his appearance on Person to Person, Owens was to embark, at the behest of the State Department, on a goodwill tour of Singapore, Malaya, the Philippines, and India. As A. M. Rosenthal, then the New York Times correspondent in South Asia, put it, Owens’s mission was “to make friends for the United States.” Having fought the fascists with his fleetness of foot, he would now fight the Communists with his charm and rhetoric —even though some Indian writers, unversed in the annals of the Olympics, confused him with Sir Owen Dixon, an Australian judge and United Nations mediator.Before the long ride to the subcontinent, though, there was the interview with Murrow, whose fondness for bespoke tailoring matched his own. Finally, at 9:30, with a cigarette clenched in his left hand, Murrow began the interview.“Jesse Owens,” he said, “is generally recognized as the greatest track star of the last half-century. His performance in Berlin stands unmatched in modern times. Statistics will never indicate Adolf Hitler’s reaction as he watched a twenty-three-year-old boy from Danville, Alabama, run the athletes of the master race right into the ground.” Owens, whose politeness was among his defining characteristics, declined to correct Murrow by pointing out that he had been twenty-two, not twenty-three, and was from Oakville, Alabama, not Danville. He simply smiled and waited for the questions he knew were coming, the questions that always came.After several minutes of amiable chatter — “You look to be in almost good enough condition to get out your old track shoes again” — and the introduction of Owens’s wife and three pretty daughters, Murrow offered  him the opportunity to talk about the games of the Eleventh Olympiad. “Jesse  Owens,” he said, “what’s your warmest memory of that August of 1936?”

Owens had been asked this question, or its variants, perhaps hundreds of times. He did not hesitate. “I remember a boy,” he said, his accent betraying no hint of his southern roots, “that I competed against in the broad jump — a boy with whom I built a friendship — and we corresponded for a number of years, and then the war broke out, and I didn’t hear any more from him at all.”Owens looked down and away from the camera. The boy he was referring to was Luz Long, the silver medalist, a pureblooded Aryan from Leipzig who had helped him reach the broad-jump finals when he had been on the verge of disqualifying. Composing himself, Owens talked about Long’s son Kai — Owens and Kai had met in 1951 — and then about winning the 100-meter dash. But he had not yet answered Murrow’s question.

“I think that the greatest moment that a person can have is to stand on a victory stand,” he said, “far away from home, and then, from the distance you can hear the strains of ‘The Star- Spangled Banner,’ and then suddenly you make a left turn and you see the Stars and Stripes rising higher and higher, and the higher the Stars and Stripes rose the louder the strains of the Star-Spangled Banner would be heard. I think that’s the greatest moment of my whole athletic career.”Finished, he smiled, looking slightly off-camera.“Thank you very much, Jesse Owens,” Murrow said, taking a deep drag. “In just a moment, we’ll take you for a visit with Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre.”Now Owens rose from his chair and dug into his pants pockets. Unlike Murrow, he had not dared to smoke on camera. Acutely conscious of his image, it simply would not do for Jesse Owens, the great track champion, to be seen smoking on network television. Nor did he want any of the young people who idolized him to think that he condoned the use of tobacco. But now that the technicians were coiling their cables and packing their cases, he pulled out a cigarette, lit up, and inhaled. Eventually, this habit would kill him — as it killed Murrow. But he was hooked, of course, and he would just as soon have joined the Communist Party as quit his Camels.As the crew finally moved his couch and coffee table back where they belonged — into the deep indentations in the carpet — Owens and his wife, Ruth, carefully returned his memorabilia to a display case. A few special items had been freed from the case temporarily, for Murrow and his audience to see clearly. There were the bronzed spikes. And the medals. The laurel wreaths. All the tokens of his youthful greatness. He had collected them nineteen years earlier, in Germany, with the eyes of the world fixed on him, in an atmosphere charged by an ascendant Third Reich, on a continent that would soon convulse in war and genocide.Nothing Jesse Owens did at the Olympic stadium diminished the horrors to come. He saved no lives. However, for those paying close enough attention, Owens, in Berlin, revealed essential truths. While the western democracies were perfecting the art of appeasement, while much of the rest of the world kowtowed to the Nazis, Owens stood up to them at their own Olympics, refuting their venomous theories with his awesome deeds.Copyright © 2007 by Jeremy Schaap. Reprinted by permission of Houghton