Two of athletics’ all-time greats reflect on the achievements of Jesse Owens on-and-off the track, analyse the deep-rooted challenges he faced and marvel at the remarkable fact that a sprint and long jump Olympic champion was also a hurdles world record holder.
Two men in history have done the sprint-jump quadruple, winning the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and the long jump at a single Olympic Games. Both were born in Alabama, USA, and both were blessed with such languid grace that you would happily wile away a day or three watching them run.
But for Carl Lewis, the achievements of his fellow Alabamian Jesse Owens, the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games four-time champion, deserve an asterisk all of their own.
“What he did was just incredible, to get on a boat, go across the ocean and win four gold medals,” said Lewis, who won gold in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and the long jump on home soil at the Los Angeles 1984 Games.
“I tell you something, it is tough to win the long jump and something else, period,” he added. “I think we kind of overstate how easy it (winning four events at one meet) is. And for him to do it back then with all he had to deal with...I looked at him as someone to aspire to, someone to emulate, not just athletically.”
Lewis is, of course, referencing the almost unimaginable challenge Owens faced as an African American running in Hitler’s Berlin, at the height of Nazism.
I looked at him as someone to aspire to, someone to emulate, not just athletically.Carl Lewis
Fellow USA sprint legend and winner of his own unique Olympic double, Michael Johnson, agrees that Owens stands alone atop athletics’ pantheon of greats.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jesse Owens,” Johnson said. “He was just an amazing athlete. And what he was able to accomplish in the short time he competed on the international stage, and as an Olympian, is unprecedented and unmatched, even to this day.
“Certainly the story is well known as to what he was up against, abroad in ’36 when he competed in the Games, as well as back here at home in the USA, which makes his accomplishments all the more special,” the winner of the 200m and 400m at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games – a feat never done before or since – added.
“And for that reason, what he has done and as an athlete, he is incomparable.”
For Lewis, whose parents were around 10 years younger than Owens and faced some of the same race-related challenges during their lives, it was learning of the difficulties his hero encountered in his home country that made a particular impact.
“It’s interesting, everyone talks about the Hitler story and how he knocked down the Aryan race idea, but then he came home and basically because of the colour of his skin he was banned from his own party (a celebration held in late 1936 at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel), he had to go up the service elevator,” said Lewis.
He was just an amazing athlete. And what he was able to accomplish in the short time he competed on the international stage, and as an Olympian, is unprecedented and unmatched, even to this day.Michael Johnson
“He is known, if you look back at his life, for what he did in Berlin, but at the time he was just some other black guy who couldn’t get in the elevator.”
Both Lewis in the 1970s and Johnson in the 1980s found drive and inspiration from Owens’ remarkable story as they started on their journeys as young athletes. While Johnson studied Owens, as he did with all the sprinting greats, Lewis was lucky enough to meet the man in person.
“I definitely knew of him but it (a face-to-face chat at a local athletics event) made things personal, which is a big, big difference,” said Lewis, who has a photograph of himself, his dad and Owens.
He also heard his hero speak in person.
“There was an event called the Jesse Owens Games and he spoke to all the kids in the Games,” Lewis said. “I was part of that and it was just an amazing opportunity for me to hear him speak and tell the story of Berlin and what he went through. It was really, really wonderful.”
While Lewis and Johnson agree that beating the best in the world in four events at a single Games is truly special, the latter is blown away by a lesser-known of Owens’ talents.
What is often overlooked is that Jesse Owens was an amazing hurdler and actually broke a world record in the hurdles.Michael Johnson
“What is often overlooked is that Jesse Owens was an amazing hurdler and actually broke a world record in the hurdles,” said an incredulous Johnson, marvelling at the ability to combine sprinting and jumping power with hurdling technique.
Owens’ hurdles world record mark came amid 45 belief-defying minutes of a university meet in 1935 in Ann Arbor, during which he broke five world records and equalled a sixth.
“It is definitely one of the most amazing feats in any sport that I’ve ever heard of,” Johnson said.So, “incomparable” seems about right as an adjective for the late Jesse Owens. Take it from two people who know.