Jesse Owens: ‘the great equalizer’ on the track

Jesse Owens premiered nationally on PBS May 1. Photo courtesy of Ohio State University archive


Film tells how racism devalued runner’s Olympic accomplishments

By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


A new documentary on a “forgotten” American hero premiered this week on public television.

The PBS American Experience history series presents Jesse Owens. It premiered nationally May 1, including on local TPT Channel 2.

According to filmmaker Laurens Grant, who produced and directed the one-hour film, “It really is an American tale: the ups and downs of an American’s story, an American hero story.”

“He is the quintessential Olympic hero,” said ESPN Reporter Jeremy Schaap, one of several persons who appeared in the documentary. “He stood up to racists in Germany, he stood up to racists at home, and he did it with a grace and a genius that have not been equaled.”

“The timing was perfect” to introduce or reintroduce Owens to the viewing audience, especially since the 2012 Olympic Games are upcoming in July, said Grant in a recent phone interview with the MSR.

Grant used archival footage of Owens’ four gold-medal-winning performances at the 1936 Berlin Olympics: He won the 100- and 200-meter dashes, long jump and was a member of the U.S. 400-meter relay team. In biographical fashion, she began with Owens, the youngest of 11 children, and his upbringing in Cleveland, Ohio, where he ran track in high school. He later attended Ohio State University, where he became the school’s first Black captain of a sports team.

The young man set three world records and tied a fourth at the 1935 Big Ten Championships, a feat Owens accomplished despite nursing a bad back. As a result, he became one of America’s first Black track superstars.

“I didn’t realize how at that time of the 1920s and 1930s, track and field was White dominated,” Grant discovered.

Owens later qualified for the U.S. team that would compete in the 1936 Olympics, which was politically charged. Adolf Hitler had hoped to use the Olympics to display his supposedly superior Aryan athletes. There were cries from some who wanted the U.S. to boycott the event. The NAACP also wanted Owens to speak out against it as well, but the athlete refused, opting instead to let his ability speak for itself, says actor Andre Braugher, who narrated the film. Owens instead saw track as “the great equalizer” for him to deal with a segregated America, he adds.

“America was a very different place in the 1930s for a Black man,” said Grant. Not only did Owens win on the track, but he also won over many Germans who watched him perform, the film points out.

“I really appreciated everyone’s participation, but I also really appreciated the people who were around at that time,” admitted Grant. “It was exciting to be in the presence of German spectators who grew up then and were actually in the stands at the games.”

However, despite his historical accomplishments overseas, Owens never fully realized the accolades one might expect for an Olympic hero. Because he refused to stay on a European fundraising tour for the AAU, and returned home to his wife, Owens was stripped of his amateur standing. He also returned to an unchanged America, never receiving a presidential phone call. He didn’t get many product endorsements or big deals either.

“He really had to invent the role of a sports spokesman or sports icon,” explained Grant on Owens, who was named by President Dwight Eisenhower as goodwill ambassador to the world in 1955.

Although he later did speaking engagements over the years, Owens mainly remained on the outside margins of American life and never obtained the type of attention other legendary athletes did, the film argues.

“Jackie Robinson stood on the shoulders of Jesse Owens,” said noted Black sociologist Harry Edwards.

“He really had to figure out how to sustain himself and his family after the Olympics. He suffered some knocks but got back up no matter what, and figured out how to persevere,” said Grant on Owens, who died in 1980 of lung cancer at age 66.

Grant previously had produced and directed documentaries for A&E and The History Channel, and also co-produced two four-hour PBS specials: Slavery and the Making of America and the Emmy-winning Seeds of Destruction. A former foreign correspondent, she proudly says that being a documentary filmmaker “is a huge responsibility,” said Grant.

On Jesse Owens, “I lived and breathed that story,” she said. “Hopefully it’ll come across as an action-packed hour. As a filmmaker, we always wish for more production time and longer screen time, but I think it was a welcomed creative challenge to not waste a second.”

More importantly, Grant said she hopes viewers will gain a new appreciation for Owens as a man and “his artistry with his athletic ability, and an appreciation of how he really didn’t have it easy.”

Heroes aren’t born but made, she believes. “It takes a lot of work and dedication, and I hope that comes through” the film, said Grant.

Her next project, which she hopes to present next year, is on the Black Panthers, said Grant. “Now I am plunging into the late ’60s and ’70s. I relish the opportunity to try to bring to life topics that may not be known in American history or topics that may have been misunderstood in American history,” she said.


Check your local listings or go to for future airings of Jesse Owens.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokes