Watching Jesse Owens run in the 1936 Olympics might make you question if you accidentally hit the fast-forward button on your TV. As legs moves up and down like pistons in an engine, Jesse Owens looks almost inhuman. He was one of the greatest athletes of all time and represented something so much larger than athletics. He represented a hope for change.
The year was 1936 in Berlin, Germany, and the Summer Olympics were just getting underway, and Owens was an American star who had international appeal. Amongst the female population of Berlin, he was especially well liked. According to reports, women came in droves to see Owens and even brought scissors in hopes of cutting off some of Owen’s clothing as a souvenir. On the other hand, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party was not so thrilled with the arrival of Owens, because Hitler intended for his Aryan athletes to dominate the Olympic games.
As Owens entered Olympic games he was surrounded by flags and banners featuring Nazi propaganda that touted “Aryan racial superiority” and also depicted Africans such as Owen as inferior. Owen was far from inferior though. He was an all star who went on to win four gold medals.
The first that Owens won was for the 100m sprint; he earned a time of 10.3 seconds and beat his friend and teammate Ralph Metcalfe by a tenth of a second. Owens then went on to win the long jump with a leap of 26 feet, 5 inches. Interestingly enough, Owens credited his success in the long jump to a German competitor, Luz Long. Long suggested that Owens moved his mark back, so that he would complete a safe and legal jump. This advice from Long lead to Owen’s victory and Long was the first to shake Owens’ hand.
The last two events that Owens received gold medals in were the 200m sprint and the 4x100 sprint relay. Owens defeated Mack Robinson (Jackie Robinson’s older brother) in the 200m sprint with a time of 20.7s, and his relay team set a world record by completing the race in 39.8s. This record would stand until Carl Lewis and his team broke it in 1984 at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Why am I recounting all of these amazing triumphs by Owens? I’ll tell you why. This Thursday Aksarben Cinema will premiere Race a film directed by Stephen Hopkins. In the film, Jesse Owens rises from college superstar (Owens graduated from Ohio State University) to Olympic gold medalist. The film stars an impressive ensemble including relative newcomer Stephan James as Jesse Owens, Jason Sudeikis as Larry Snyder, Owens’ track coach in college, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, and more. The film is an exceptional drama that will encourage people today to reflect on the past and think about how far we’ve come, while still knowing there’s so much further we must go.