Owens doc window on racism

BILL HARRIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:16 PM ET

TORONTO - Considering the grace with which Canadian Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals recently handled a racist situation, it brings into clearer focus the story of Jesse Owens.

The general details of Owens’ triumphs at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of an angered Adolf Hitler are well known to sports historians. But there are many lesser known and fascinating tidbits in a new PBS documentary simply titled Jesse Owens, which is airing as part of the American Experience series.

For example:

• Owens was a famous, charming and polished track and field star at the collegiate level well before the Games, but there was a worry he had peaked too soon.

• Owens publicly expressed support for a boycott of the Games by the United States, to protest human-rights violations in Nazi Germany, but the U.S. government had not yet turned its back on Hitler.

• The Games had been awarded to Berlin before Hitler took power, and at first he didn’t give a damn about them. Hitler had to be convinced by his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, that the Games represented a unique public-relations opportunity to cement the superiority of the Aryan race.

• Owens won four gold medals, but he felt guilty about the last one, because he and another black American were last-minute replacements on the relay team for two Jewish Americans. Word was the Nazis had ranked their enemies and had put pressure on the U.S. to make the change.

• In Owens’ later events, the largely German crowd actually chanted his name, a remarkable accomplishment for a black athlete in that circumstance.

• When Owens returned home, despite his celebrity, systemic racism in the U.S. led him to humiliation (reduced to racing horses) and bankruptcy. He was forgotten by the mainstream media until the Cold War heated up in the mid-1950s, when the Eisenhower administration began propping up Owens as a “professional good example” of the American lifestyle.

• In the 1970s, Owens actually did one of those “don’t leave home without it” American Express TV commercials.

Each individual PBS station is a lone wolf, so to speak, so when Jesse Owens airs depends upon which affiliate you’re watching. The “debut” of Jesse Owens technically is on Tuesday, May 1, and the doc can be found on many PBS affiliates that day. But if you’re in Southern Ontario and have access only to Buffalo PBS station WNED, Jesse Owens doesn’t air until Monday, May 7.

Ward last week was the victim of racist verbal assaults on Twitter after his overtime goal lifted the Caps past the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

bill.harris@sunmedia.ca


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