I wanted to watch a college basketball game on TV, not difficult these days but something of a task during the late 1960s. It demanded a screwdriver to change the antenna wires on the back of the television to UHF, which was short for “Those Aren’t Real Snowflakes Falling, It’s Just Lousy Reception.”
But with some patience, a TV viewer could be transported into a small gym where players wore shorts the size of Speedo swimming trunks, seemingly impervious to the indoor blizzard.
As I was searching for a channel with clarity, an unprepossessing middle-aged man appeared on the screen. He sat behind a desk, reading sports scores.
“Wow! That’s Jesse Owens,” my dad told me. “Do you know that name?”
“Jesse Owens. He’s the greatest athlete who ever lived.”
My interest piqued, I went on to read about Owens’ accomplishments as the track star who dominated the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. The story was especially profound because of its racial undertones: Owens, who was black, had gone to Nazi Germany and put on a show of wondrous athletic ability that debunked Adolf Hitler’s sick ideas about Aryan supremacy.
It made for a convenient narrative: A champion representing America’s culture of inclusion — liberty for all — embarrassing the worst person ever born. The problem with this take is that history rarely provides a convenient narrative.
After winning gold medals in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes, the long jump and the 4x100 relay, Owens returned to the States, where he was celebrated with a ticker-tape parade in New York City. That an Olympic star was required to ride the freight elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria — the hotel’s lobby elevators were restricted to white guests — might have been Owens’ first clue that his conquering-hero status was fragile.
Another clue was President Franklin Roosevelt’s refusal to acknowledge Owens’ achievements. No reception at the White House — after all, it was 1936, an election year, and bestowing such an honor on a black man would have alienated Southern white voters — and there wasn’t even a congratulatory telegram from the president.
Owens’ fame didn’t convert into a fortune. He operated a dry-cleaning business and worked as a gas-station attendant, cobbling together enough money to purchase ownership of Portland’s franchise in the West Coast Baseball Association, a Negro League venture organized by Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein. The league folded after two months, but not before Owens challenged thoroughbred horses to race between games of a doubleheader.
Owens declared himself bankrupt when the Internal Revenue Service successfully prosecuted him for tax evasion in 1966. By then he relocated to Chicago, where he found employment as a radio disc jockey and sports reporter on an obscure UHF television station.
The flurry of cruel punches Owens took eventually lightened up. He was appointed a U.S. goodwill ambassador and shared his biography — the child of Alabama sharecroppers who paid his way through Ohio State, where his legend percolated — at corporate gatherings.
But his famous humiliation of Hitler might be a mythical contrivance. A few years ago, Siegfried Mischner, a German sportswriter who covered the 1936 Olympic Games, told Britain’s Daily Mail of a photo Owens kept in his wallet.
“It was taken behind the honor stand and so not captured by the world’s press,” Mischner recalled. “But I saw it. I saw him shaking Hitler’s hand.”
If such an encounter took place, there is no photo to verify it. We know this much: Jesse Owens believed he got more respect in Germany than he got in the United States.
“Race,” the first biopic about the life and times of Owens, opens in movie theaters on Friday. I plan on seeing it next week, and I’ll be surprised if it delves into his heartbreaking transition from Olympic hero to spurned superstar whose skin color forced the world’s greatest athlete to ride a freight elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria.
He made American history. American history is very complicated.
John McGrath: email@example.com