He humiliated Hitler and then was repeatedly humiliated in his own country. He was an international track star, but the American track powers punished him for defying their attempt to make money from his sweat. His skill should have transcended race, and eventually would, but to an Associated Press writer in 1936, he was "the brown Buckeye bullet."
He was, as many of you have already realized, John Cleveland Owens, better known as Jesse, and his story makes up an hourlong "American Experience" telecast at 7 p.m. Tuesday on KUED Channel 7.
Born in Alabama in 1913, Owens moved to Cleveland with his family at the age of 9 and came to prominence in track first in the Cleveland area and later at Ohio State. His stunning early success was no match for the racism of the time; at Ohio State, for example, he and other African-American athletes were not allowed to live in the men's dorm.
His great moment came at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where he won four gold medals and put to the lie German leader Adolf Hitler's assertions of German racial superiority. As interviews in "American Experience" show, he even helped change some Germans' attitudes with his dazzling displays on the field.
But he and other athletes participated only after being pressured by American Olympics boss Avery Brundage, an anti-Semite who defied calls for a boycott of the games because of Germany's growing attacks against its Jewish citizens. The American team's two Jewish relay runners were replaced by Owens and another African American, Ralph Metcalfe, because, as one "American Experience" commentator notes, the Germans specifically demanded that no Jewish athletes compete -- and the Americans went along.
Nor did success in Germany translate into triumphs after the Olympics. When he refused to take part in a grinding European tour to raise money for America's Amateur Athletic Union, the AAU banned him from its events. Promises of big-money deals in the United States evaporated. Racism, including segregation, was still commonplace. As the documentary notes, white Olympics stars such as Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe found work in the movies -- but doors were closed to Owens. Things were so bad that Owens was reduced to collecting a paycheck by racing against a horse.
"American Experience" tells all this and more through vintage film, Andre Braugher's narration and interviews with members of Owens' family, biographers and others in the United States and abroad. It is not the definitive story of Owens as a person, but it does show his key character traits -- and why he has such an important place in history.