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His supreme athletic excellence had always been an evolution of mind: a progression of modes of response: from the simple to the compound, from the compound to the complex, from reflex to tropism, and from tropism to instinct. His prowess was also obvious: nothing beneath science, nor above it. Apparent. And, in all this, he must surely have accepted the theology of the Sermon on the Mount. Besides, he represented the Olympic spirit to the hilt. When he breathed his last, thirty-five years ago, he must have certainly felt enormously sad to witness the great movement being so highly politicised.
Flashback. Berlin, 1936. The world was witness to a phenomenal blast of speed, guts, stamina and calm courage of a young, strong twenty-three-year-old black athlete from Cleveland, US, in the Olympic Games held at the zenith of Nazi ‘supremacy’to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan,’master’ race. While Adolf Hitler, the undisputed Supremo of the Third Reich, watched the proceedings, in spectacular regalia, Jesse Owens, a member of the ‘inferior’ race, created a sensation by winning a then-unparalleled four gold medals, and, with that, a permanent place in sporting history.
For Owens, who had set the Danube aflame, the whole drama was just a simple encore. Because, just a year earlier, he had scalped six World records, which also included 100-yard long jump, 220-yard, and 200m hurdles, within a space of 45 minutes, while being troubled by an injured back. What’s more, for a man who once beat a racehorse in a 100-yard sprint, Owens’ gold rush at Berlin was achieved in a day’s work. Incredible stuff; its ‘appointment’ being truly Olympian.
Owens’ first tryst with glory was the 100m sprints. He won it in a canter, by equalling the then existing World Record time of 10.03 seconds. If god were to send him yet again, Owens would beat the best in the business, with some extra effort. Glint. The second medal was annexed in the long jump event, as Jesse skied into a crescendo with a giant leap of 26 feet, or 8.64m, to send along with it a global record into the dustbin.
Yes, Owens had fouled on his first two jumps, and only managed to romp home off his third and final try, in the qualifying round, which was ruled as okay by officials. In his second attempt, Jesse’s toes had kissed the bank of earth encircling the take-off board. Flop. One last chance remained. It was at this stage, that Lutz Long, Germany’s numero uno and Owens’ most serious challenger for the title, walked up to his American rival and advised him to place a towel before the take-off mark. The idea worked. The rest is history, a silver-lining and triumph of sporting spirit over competition.
Jesse’s third gold came in the 200m race, with a new Olympic record timing of 20.07 seconds, which, incidentally, also made him the first since the turn of the last century to win three individual gold medals in the globe’s premier sports event. As the television cameras swerved, for the first time ever at the Olympics, and captured some great shots for posterity, Owens had not called it quits yet. The fourth medal came almost by default, when Jesse, who was not included in the original 4x100m relay team, got into the unit – thanks to a rumour that a crack Panzer squad was ready to upset the American applecart only to accumulate a huge lead. This paved the way for the Yankee team to doodle a terrific win with relative ease.
Jesse, the poor black boy, was on top of the world. Paradoxically, it just wasn’t from a different perspective. While Hitler may not have given him his full hand, what was most bemoaning was the eerie silence of the White House, juxtaposed by shoddy coverage in the US media. Worse still, the Atlanta Constitution, a liberal newspaper, did not carry a single picture of Owens. In sharp contrast, the German press was chock-a-block for a sporting hero. All thanks to Joseph Goebbels’ PR-fiat, and Nazi Germany’s extreme flair for details: “Care should be taken not to offend Negro athletes.”
Yet another example. A banquet was held in Owens’ honour in the US. He was presented a memento, and quietly asked to leave the hall. He was not supposed to join his hosts at the dinner table. Maybe, the American public did not gloat over Owens’ great victories, or supreme feats. So much for US ‘nationalism.’ However this maybe, more hiccups were in store. Jesse, who never ever kept an account of the loans he often gave his friends and others, found that a US$25,000 offer his fee for a fortnight’s stage shows from a shenanigan, who wanted to capitalise on his Olympic standing, was, after all, a hoax. A short while later, a decree also proclaimed that Owens would no longer be eligible to sport the amateur label.
Owens, a celebrity, did not paradoxically have a regular job. He could not think of becoming a professional. The era of wealthy sports-persons was never heard of in his time. All the same, Jesse, the patriot, he did not flinch. He made the Athletic Commission of Illinois perceive reason. When he was appointed secretary of the august body, Jesse became a roving coach and toured several countries, including India, where he trained athletes with compassion and understanding. A Gandhian sportsman, Owens, who gave a new dimension to his job, made a huge impression with his ready wit and gift of the gab.
Well, in the midst of happiness, luck went wrong again. Jesse was caught in a vortex of a tax scandal that never was. Sure, his honour was restored. Yet, the drama pained his psyche. Because, Jesse never wore chemical peels on his face? You bet. He was too humble and generous. Which is why his story reads like a collage: unforgettable, like the tags of verses of Walter Scott, or the notes of Wolfgang Mozart. If Charles Riley, a white American, his school coach, made Jesse realise his vast potential, Owens’ wife, Minnie, was yet another individual, who stood like a pillar behind her husband’s ups and downs: serene, unwavering. She shared Jesse’s wonderful philosophy too – that they were Americans first; blacks, next.
This was the legacy of Owens: the legendary Olympian, and a jewel among men. Far from the madding crowd of hatred, haughtiness, discord, deceit, pride, or arrogance. He was, for the most part, to all sport, what Roger Federer is to tennis today – a true Olympian hero, like no other, for all time to come.