The headline of Jesse Owens’ life always mentions the four gold medals he won in track and field events at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, which crushed Nazi German notions of Aryan superiority. But the real story of his life neither begins nor ends with that victory, and a documentary airing tonight on PBS explores Owens’ life before and after.
“Jesse Owens," an hourlong episode of American Experience that airs at 8 p.m. on most PBS stations, starts with Owens’ record-breaking high school and college years in Cleveland, Ohio, and at Ohio State University.
His Olympic victories had a deep impact on Americans, but also on German spectators whose lives would be changed by the Holocaust.
“When I saw him run, he became something of a hero to me,” said then-11-year-old Theodor Michael, a German of African descent who is quoted in the film. “It was truly inspiring for me to see a person of my skin color, my kind, winning.”
After beating the German favorite in the broad jump, the two competitors walked arm-in-arm around the stadium for a victory lap, to Nazi leaders’ disgust.
But the lucrative endorsements and contracts that were dangled in front of Owens after his victories didn’t materialize once he returned to the United States. He faced discrimination while touring with other members of the U.S. Olympic team and was forced to stay and eat in segregated establishments.
"All of those experiences helped him become an incredibly strong man who survived through so many challenging times," said "Jesse Owens" director Laurens Grant. "He fought back with grace and his talent. Those things are maybe forgotten by the wayside, and I think all those things made him the man he was."
Instead of earning a living from his extraordinary athleticism, he ended up opening a dry cleaning business, and occasionally raced against horses at the behest of promoters. It wasn’t until the last couple decades before his death in 1980 that he became a U.S. Goodwill Ambassador and pitchman for American Express cards and Ford cars.
“We want to remember what we as an American society think we did. And frankly he wasn’t remembered and appreciated in all of his glory at the time,” Grant said. “We don’t want to remember… the norms of what black men were doing and how society wanted to treat them in the 1930s. But those challenges he experienced make him even more of a remarkable figure.”