New doc reminds us of Owens' greatness

April, 30, 2012
4/30/12
12:17
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[+] EnlargeJesse Owens
AP PhotoJesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The Jesse Owens story has been told many times, but in our fleeting, fickle and 140-character era, his tale still deserves to be trending.

Fortunately, 'Jesse Owens: American Experience", airing Tuesday night on PBS, is a welcome and engaging reminder of all that Owens overcame and accomplished by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Mixing footage of Owens with historian and eye-witness interviews, 'Jesse Owens: American Experience" fittingly moves along at an Olympic runner's pace.

The 1936 Olympics made Owens famous, but 'American Experience'' tells us that he and other athletes supported a boycott of the Berlin Games due to the already infamous Nazi treatment of the Jews (the Nuremberg Laws had been enacted the previous year). Then-USOC president Avery Brundage, however, sympathized with the fascists and insisted the United States compete.

While the German government took down repellant propaganda (such as signs reading 'No Jews Allowed'') during the Olympics, Hitler nonetheless snubbed Owens by refusing to shake his hand after he won the 100. In another disturbing move, the U.S. dropped two Jewish sprinters, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, from the 4x100 relay the morning of the race. A historian in the documentary said the Americans bowed to Nazi pressure to not have Jews compete (Glickman blamed Brundage for the decision). Owens was a reluctant replacement in the relay, where he won his fourth gold.

Just as interesting is what happens to Owens after the Olympics. Owens was a hero when he came home from Berlin, but national acclaim didn't come with the financial rewards it does today. This was long before endorsement money and reality TV offered gold medalists opportunities to cash in on their performances. For that matter, Olympians still could not be paid. There was no 'Dancing with the Stars" for Owens. With few financial opportunities and needing to provide for his family, Owens wound up racing against horses to pay the bills.

As we get ready to root for Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, the U.S. Olympic basketball team and others in London this summer, 'Jesse Owens: American Experience" is a compelling reminder that Owens should still be remembered among the greatest Olympians of all time, if not the greatest.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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