Commentary

Owens' 1936 feat stands test of time

Updated: August 14, 2009, 12:28 PM ET
By Jeremy Schaap | Special to ESPN.com

On Saturday, the fastest, strongest and most durable athletes on the planet will gather in the west end of Berlin for the World Track and Field Championships.

And they will be competing on hallowed ground. The stadium in which they will run, jump, throw the hammer and put the shot was built to host the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games of the 11th Olympiad in 1936, as well as the Olympic track and field competition. More important, it was where Jesse Owens fashioned the most significant individual performance ever in sports. The Berlin Olympic Stadium may have been the house that Hitler built, but over the course of one week in August, Owens all but wrested it from him.

By the time Owens arrived in Berlin in the summer of 1936, he was already world-famous. Fourteen months earlier, on May 25, 1935, in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the span of less than an hour, he set world records in the 220-yard dash, 220 hurdles and the long jump. In the 100-yard dash, he merely equaled the world record.

Over the next several months, Owens had slumped: At one point, he lost four consecutive races to Eulace Peacock of Temple University. But, in the spring, he was back in top form. That Owens was favored to win four gold medals in Berlin does not diminish the simple truth that what he achieved in Berlin stands as the greatest accomplishment ever in sports.

It's really not close.

On a simple athletic level, Owens' performance in Berlin was impressive enough. He won four of the most important events at the games, equaling the world record in the 100 meters (despite a muddy track), setting an Olympic record in the long jump that would stand for 24 years and posting world records in the 200 on an oval track and in the 4x100 relay.

When Carl Lewis won the same four events in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, he was competing in an Olympics diminished by the absence of the Soviet Union, East Germany and Cuba -- not that any of those countries' athletes were likely to defeat him. And, crucially, Lewis was at home, running and jumping just a few miles from his Santa Monica Track Club. In the long jump, he chose to conserve his strength rather than make a final attempt to set a record, a tone-deaf decision that cost him the affection of the crowd and probably millions of dollars in endorsements.

Owens, on the other hand, was competing in the capital of a nation in which he was legally considered something less than human, winning event after event with Adolf Hitler watching from his box. Owens was also representing a nation in which he was a second-class citizen. As the German papers were calling him and his fellow African-American Olympians "black auxiliaries," American newspaper reporters described them as "our Ethiopian troops" and their collective triumphs as "a darktown parade." The New York Times called Owens "The Dark Streak from Ohio State." The novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote that he cheered for Owens even though Owens was "black as tar."

By dominating the Berlin Games, which had been designed as a showcase for Nazism, Owens struck a blow against the racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic government of Germany. With his brilliance on the track, handsome appearance and grace in victory, Owens seemed to embody the Greek athletic ideal the Germans had suggested was theirs (Hitler believed the ancient Greeks were Aryans). Owens struck a blow, too, against American racists. At the time, blacks were banned not just from baseball, but also from the NFL and several college athletic conferences, not to mention tens of thousands of hotels, restaurants, clubs and schools.

For African-Americans, Owens' victories were an important salve. Just a few weeks before Owens left New York on the S.S. Manhattan bound for Hamburg, German Max Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis, who was, at the time, the No. 1 heavyweight contender and poised to become the first black heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson.

Louis' defeat saddened millions of Americans, especially African-Americans, while the Germans trumpeted Schmeling's victory as an example of their superiority. After Owens' feat in Berlin, the knockout lost much of its sting. "Hitler declared Aryan supremacy by decree," Shirley Povich wrote in The Washington Post, "but Jesse Owens is proving him a liar by degrees." Even Schmeling said, "Mr. Owens is the most perfect athlete I have ever seen."

Not to diminish the achievements of Jim Thorpe, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Wilma Rudolph, Babe Didrikson, Pele, Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, but Owens' achievement was singular. Robinson, for instance, made an invaluable contribution to the civil rights cause by breaking the color barrier in 1947, but his performance that season on the field was merely excellent, not extraordinary. He did not finish among the top five in the National League in hitting, RBIs, home runs, batting average, slugging percentage or on-base percentage. He led the league in stolen bases and placed second in runs scored. He finished fifth in the MVP balloting.

In Berlin, Owens was in every way extraordinary. He was, of course, masterful in the sprints, the long jump and the relay. He also made fools of all the bigots -- domestic and foreign -- who denied his basic existence in society.

Seventy-three years later, he remains the champion of champions.

Jeremy Schaap is an ESPN anchor and national correspondent, based in New York since 1998. He is the substitute host of "Outside The Lines" and "The Sports Reporters" and frequent contributor to ABC's "World News Tonight" and "Nightline."

Jeremy Schaap

SportsCenter Reporter/Host, Classic Sports Reporters
Jeremy Schaap is an ESPN anchor and national correspondent, based in New York since 1998. He is a New York Times best-selling author ("Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History") and a contributor to "ABC World News Tonight" and "Nightline."