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A Special Bond Between Champions

May 25, 2003

A Special Bond Between Champions


''They took away my father's career. They took away his life. Today it would be the same as some administrator telling Tiger Woods his career is over. Can you imagine how Tiger Woods would have felt, and how the rest of the world would have reacted, if he had been told at the age of 22 that he could never again participate in serious competition? Jesse Owens was touted as this legend who had beaten Hitler. Yet, back home in America, he was continually reminded that he was not so special. He was still black — just like Joe Louis.''

— Marlene Owens Rankin, 2000

This year marks the 90th anniversary of Jesse Owens's birth. His name might resonate more softly across America today, yet his achievement in winning four gold medals at the so-called Nazi Olympics in 1936 remains one of the 20th century's most enduring moments in sports history.

There is a famous photograph of Owens breasting the tape in Berlin's Olympic arena. His nearest rival, five meters adrift, grimaces in agony. Owens, however, offers a study of grace and beauty made even more striking by the threatening backdrop. Black and red swastikas are set against a leaden sky as, in the towering stands, Hitler, Goebbels, GÃoring, Himmler and 110,000 other Germans stare down at Owens, the 22-year-old black star from the cotton fields of Alabama.

Hitler wanted the Games to showcase Aryan superiority. In America, Owens's extraordinary talent was explained away by similarly racist notions. Dean Cromwell, the United States Olympic team's sprint coach, believed, as he wrote in his 1941 book ''Championship Techniques in Track and Field'': ''The Negro athlete excels because he is closer to the primitive than the white athlete. It was not so long ago that his ability to sprint and jump was a life-and-death matter to him in the jungle. His muscles are pliable and his easygoing disposition is a valuable aid to the mental and physical relaxation a runner and jumper must have.''

Owens won gold in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump and the 4x100 relay. Yet a week later, in one of the worst betrayals ever seen in world sports, Owens was ostracized, not by the Germans, but by his own country's administrators. ''Owens is finished,'' Dan Ferris, secretary of the American Athletic Union, said in Berlin to a BBC reporter in a live radio interview on the last day of the Games.

The decision had been made by a man who stood alongside Ferris. Avery Brundage, the autocratic president of the United States Olympic Committee and a self-made millionaire, had been infuriated by Owens's refusal to continue a post-Olympic barnstorming tour across Europe. Forced by Brundage to leave Berlin before the end of the Games to compete in Cologne and Bochum in Germany, and in Prague and London, traveling with no money and little food, Owens withdrew from the team before it reached Scandinavia.

''They are trying to grab everything they can,'' Owens said of the United States athletic administrators, in an interview with The New York Times, ''and we can't even buy a souvenir of the trip.''

Brundage barred Owens from the track for life. ''Slavery Avery,'' as Brundage was widely known in American athletic circles, told The Manchester Guardian in England that Owens had besmirched the ''sanctity of amateur sport'' by admitting interest in rumored offers from Hollywood.

Even though those glamorous movie contracts failed to materialize, Brundage was unswerving. Owens never ran or jumped in competition again. Instead, besides working as a bathroom attendant in Cleveland, he ran countless stunt races against horses, dogs and other black sportsmen — most notably in July 1938 against his great friend, Joe Louis, who two weeks earlier crushed Max Schmeling of Germany in the most politically charged fight in boxing history.

Owens had to trip and fall so that victory in a 60-yard burlesque could be ceded to the world heavyweight champion. He didn't mind much. Like the rest of black America, Owens delighted in the revenge Louis had exacted for his earlier loss to Schmeling in June 1936, six weeks before the Berlin Olympics.

An intensely compelling symmetry links Owens and Louis. Born within eight months of each other in Alabama, they were the grandsons of slaves and the sons of sharecroppers. They both stammered as boys before their families moved north in the 1920's, and they discovered themselves in sport — Owens as a runner on the sidewalks of Cleveland and Louis in a Detroit gym.

They soon presented a sharp contrast. Louis never smiled in public; Owens rarely stopped grinning. Owens ran ''smooth as the west wind,'' and for free, on the amateur track; Louis marched silently into the obscenely moneyed and gangster-ridden world of professional boxing. Louis was surrounded by a black entourage; Owens's mentors and coaches were white. Owens had gone to college; Louis was dismissed as a virtual illiterate.

Both Owens and Louis became heroic figures, and the first black sportsmen to receive such adulation. Baseball, basketball and football were still divided along rigid lines of color. In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play major league baseball. Robinson always acknowledged the debt he and the United States owed to Owens and, in particular, Louis.

Unlike Owens, who had been banished so young, Louis fought for years after he should have retired. He held the world heavyweight title from 1937 to 1949 and made 25 successful championship defenses. His record will almost certainly never be broken, and yet he ended up destitute. Hunted by the Internal Revenue Service, Louis was reduced to wrestling, pretending to be a lion tamer in a circus and working the television game-show circuit. His debt was in the millions as he slid into drug addiction and hit bottom in a psychiatric institution in Denver. There, in the summer of 1970, he was visited by his old friend.

The runner and the fighter were then both 56. Owens had risen from being a bankrupt dry cleaner and a failed suit salesman to become a slick motivational speaker and an admired government representative around the world. Yet, he too had been hounded by the I.R.S. and trailed by the F.B.I., whose director, J. Edgar Hoover, suspected wrongly that the deeply patriotic Owens might have been influenced by foreign politicians and ''agitators.''

Ruth Owens, his 86-year-old widow, told me a poignant story shortly before her death in 2001. She relived the day her husband met Louis in Denver. Sitting in the psychiatric institution's small garden, Louis told Owens about the day another patient had pointed at him. ''See that guy?'' the man said to his wife. ''He knocked out Schmeling in Berlin. Hitler walked straight out of the stadium. He was that mad.''

Louis had set the man straight. He told him it was Owens who had annoyed Hitler in Berlin.

''Only one thing matters now,'' Owens said, grinning. ''You're getting better.'' ''That's why I like you, Jess,'' Louis said. ''You always see the bright side.''

Louis was released in December 1970. He spent the last 10 years of his life in Las Vegas working as a professional greeter for Caesars Palace. Owens, meanwhile, had become a successful businessman.

Their entwined lives contain a symbolism that will outlast even the most gifted and fortunate of their successors. Owens defied Hitler and Brundage; Louis crushed Schmeling and stoically punched his way to glory in the overwhelmingly white world of America in the 1930's and 40's. There is no more revealing tribute to Louis's stature in black America than the anecdote related by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Recalling the day when a young black American on death row was gassed, King told how the condemned man fell to his knees and cried: ''Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis.''

Close friends for 45 years, Owens and Louis both died at the age of 66, their legacy at the outset of the 1980's stained by a sense that they had been betrayed by their country.

''Jesse was not an angry or bitter man,'' Ruth Owens told me in 2001. ''Neither was Joe. They didn't hate anyone. They might seem quiet if you put 'em next to any of these modern fellows — but quietness don't diminish pride.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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