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Sports Then and Now

Celebrating Jesse Owens on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Posted on January 18, 2016 by Mike Raffone

MIKE Comic 136 Jesse OwensTo celebrate Martin Luther King Day, allow me to acknowledge one of the greatest athletes of all-time.

This extraordinary man helped initiate racial dialogue in America way back then in 1936 and will unwittingly do so now 80+ years later when a major motion picture about his life entitled Race releases next month.

Before MLB’s Jackie Robinson, the NFL’s Jim Brown, the NBA’s Wilt Chamberlain or boxing’s Joe Louis, track star Jesse Owens was regarded as the USA’s first ever African American sports icon.

On our country’s national holiday, let’s remember this great American who flew past his competitors on the track and soared above the hate and discrimination that he faced away from it.

The son of an Alabama sharecropper, James Cleveland Jesse Owens battled pneumonia as a sickly child before his family moved north to Cleveland, Ohio.

Years later, a much stronger and healthier 5’10” and 165 lb. Owens blossomed as an outstanding track and field athlete at Ohio State University.

Named the Buckeye Bullet for how quickly he flew around the track, Owens shattered sprint and long jump records during his college days. He won eight individual NCAA individual championships.

Perhaps the greatest single day accomplishment in track and field history occurred on May 25, 1935. Owens tied the 100 yard dash world record and broke three other world records in the long jump, 220 yard dash and 220 yard low hurdles.

What makes Jesse Owens’ feats so amazing is that his incredible performances in all four events took place in the time span of less than one hour.

Owens’ success continued after his college days.

He is best remembered for his magnificent performance at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. Jesse Owens captured four gold medals. He won the long jump, 100 meter dash and 200 meter dash and anchored the USA’s 4 x 100 meter relay team.

Wins aside, the most dominant athlete at the 1936 Berlin Summer Games may be more admired and respected for the way he excelled on the world stage.

In spite of German dictator Adolph Hitler’s desire to showcase what he believed was white Aryan supremacy, this black skinned American athlete blasted past all would-be competitors.

Jesse Owens’ success at the Berlin Olympics even prompted a German sports apparel maker to present him with the first ever sports sponsorship contract for a black athlete.

Sadly, Owens’ respectability and celebrity status in Europe wasn’t similarly honored when he returned home. In a gathering at a New York landmark before the start of a ticker tape parade, Owens was forced to take a freight elevator to meet up with his victorious fellow Olympic athletes – simply because of his skin color.

Following the 1936 Olympics, Owens found employment by racing against cars and horses in carnival type events. He played briefly with the Harlem Globetrotters and later served as a motivational speaker. Often when he traveled, this great Olympic champion was forced to stay in separate black only hotels and eat in black only restaurants.

One of the greatest athletes of the 20th Century, Jesse Owens was eventually acknowledged for his accomplishments.

In 1976, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Gerald Ford. In 1980, former President George H. W. Bush presented Owens with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award.

Oddly, Jesse Owens chain smoked cigarettes for 35 years and died of cancer in 1980. This remarkable Olympian may be remembered as one of the greatest track and field athletes of all time.

Equally importantly, the Buckeye Bullet will always be loved and respected for the way he utilized his athletic fame to break through the scourge of racism.

Owens is also an easy choice at #7 in my sports comic book Favorite Flyers in Sports available for only 99 cents on Amazon.

MIKE on sports!

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