History not lost on track team heading into Jesse Owens Memorial Track Meet
One of the most iconic photographs in sports history is that of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics on the podium, flanked by America’s eventual World War II enemies Germany and Japan. In those Olympics, Owens rebuked the notion of the superiority of Adolf Hitler’s Aryan race.
Now — 80 years later — Central Michigan’s track and field team will travel to Ohio State University — where Owens attended and ran track and field. CMU participates in this weekend’s Jesse Owens Memorial Invitational to take part in commemorating the infamous athlete.
The Jesse Owens Legacy
“Jesse Owens was the gold standard (in track and field),” said Head Coach Mark Guthrie. “In my generation and the generation before, when you mention track and field, the next thing you mention is Jesse Owens.”
Owens, the grandson of a slave, was born in Alabama in 1913 and moved to Cleveland, Ohio with his family when he was nine years old. While in high school, he tied the existing world record in the 100-meter dash (9.4 seconds) and set a world record in the broad jump (24’, 11.75”) and was recruited by many colleges, eventually choosing OSU.
He did not receive a scholarship and had to work full time while competing as a student-athlete. He worked as a waiter, a night elevator operator and pumped gas.
Perhaps his most famous moment in college came in the 1935 Big Ten Championship meet at Michigan. Owens set three world records and tied a fourth in the span of 45 minutes. He accomplished this hours after suffering from a back injury from a fall down a flight of stairs.
"Ironically, (my wife's) dad won the discus championship in Wisconsin the same day (Owens) had the big day at Michigan," Guthrie said. "We found the front page of the newspaper with Dawn’s dad on the left and Owens on the right. We had that matted and framed."
Owens qualified to represent his country in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning four gold medals in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, 4x100 meter relay and the long jump, a feat that would go unsurpassed until 1984.
“He was a great athlete, a great individual from all of his accomplishments and the time frame that he was in,” said sophomore sprinter Lorenzo Wells. “Other countries didn’t want black athletes from America to even go to their country and compete, then he went to the Olympics and (won) four gold medals, who else could do that? It’s just an honor to even go to Ohio State.”
Germany was under control of Hitler’s Nazi party at the time and the Olympic games were supposed to be the affirmation of the superiority of Hitler’s Aryan race.
"(Owens) overcame so many obstacles, especially running over in Germany with the Nazis and all that,” said junior Malik Peacock. “They basically told him that he couldn’t and he wouldn’t, and then he did.”
Competing in the invite
Owens’ story of racial struggle and athletic triumph is not lost on the athletes of CMU. They understand the opportunity they have going into OSU.
“You feel it, you feel like ‘Alright I’m in the same place that he was running at, let’s see if I can do the same things that he could do,’” Wells said. “It gives you some type of hope that you can be as great as him.”
Wells ran in the meet last season, but due to a minor hamstring injury, will not be participating in this year’s meet. Peacock’s situation is just the opposite, as he will be competing in the meet on Saturday.
“I wasn’t able to travel to Ohio State last year because of injury, so I feel like I owe some redemption,” Peacock said. “It’s a business trip.”
While they acknowledge Owen’s struggles and success, the athletes don’t draw inspiration directly from Owens.
“(Owens) is an inspirational person, but he’s not the first person that I think of when I run,” said sophomore Jamar Hardy. “I draw inspiration mostly from family and friends that couldn’t be here.”
Guthrie has a much more personal connection with the Olympian. He met in Owens in the late 1970s at a track and field clinic in Wisconsin which they both spoke at.
“All of the speakers were sitting together in a room and of course (Owens) was talking and everybody else was listening, Guthrie said. “His message was, ‘It’s not only about being a champion, working hard and overcoming (adversity), but it’s also about being a good person, doing what is right and finding something that is more important than you.’”
Even without the added hype the Jesse Owens name brings to the meet, it has relevance, as many Mid-American Conference and Big Ten schools will be in attendance.
“This is a great chance to see how we stack up (against other MAC schools),” Guthrie said. “This is a little bit of a dress rehearsal for the championship meet. If they can’t do it (at OSU), the MAC meet probably isn’t going to go very well.”