The Immortal Jesse Owens

The Sri Chinmoy Centre has been my life, my journey and my home for many, many years. I hope these pages offer a small glimpse into the joy, the grace and the wonder that is Sri Chinmoy.

                 by Animesh Harrington

Jesse Owens, 220-yard Hurdles, 1935
Jesse Owens on his way to a world record in the 220-yard hurdles
at the 'Big Ten' meet, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 25 May 1935.

EVERY ATHLETE HAS HIS HOUR. But very rarely has so much glory been squeezed into a mere 60 minutes as it was on May 25th, 1935, between 3 and 4 pm.

When a 21-year-old black American boy named Jesse Owens stepped upon the track that afternoon at the Western Athletic Conference Championships (Big Ten) at Ann Arbor, Michigan, no one would have anticipated that history was about to record one of the finest achievements in modern athletics. For that single, magic hour the world stood still and watched in awe as Jesse Owens consecutively set 6 track and field world records, one after another.

At 3:15 pm Jesse Owens ran 100 yards in 9.4 seconds, equalling the world record and winning by 5 yards. By 3:25 pm he had set a world record in the long jump of 8.13 metres (26 feet, 8¼ inches), a distance that survived for a quarter of a century. Next, Jesse turned to the 220-yard (straight) race where he broke the old world record by 0.3 seconds, clocking 20.3 seconds. This record, together with the 200-metre record he broke en route, lasted for 14 years. At 4 pm he lined up for his last race of the day, the hurdles (straight) and 22.6 seconds later he had claimed two more world records for 220 yards and 200 metres.

“To win the Olympic 100 metres had been my dream since I was a boy of 12,” said Jesse. “The ‘Big Ten’ meet was a starting point where I first knew I could compete against top-class athletes and achieve things. But the Games were the ultimate; the biggest competition against the very best.”

One of the earliest and most permanent influences of Jesse Owens’ life and athletic career was his first coach, an Irish schoolteacher named Charlie Riley. It was he who first inspired Jesse with the Olympic vision.

At the beginning of every term, Riley would line up each class at one end of the football field for a 60-yard race. The young Jesse Owens astounded his teacher by recording a time close to one-second outside the world record. Riley suggested that Jesse try out for the track team but at that stage, the young boy had no real interest in track. And, as he had to work every afternoon after school, he could never make the practice sessions. Yet his stubborn teacher would not take no for an answer and arranged with Jesse to come one hour before school for private coaching. Such was his faith in Jesse. “Make the most of your abilities and nobody can stop you. You’ll be a winner,” he would tell Jesse.

By the end of his junior year, Jesse was long jumping within 1½ inches of the national record and running 100 yards in 10.3 seconds, equal to the Scholastic Record.

“He was a natural athlete,” Riley would say. “He needed very little coaching.” Beyond the role of coach, however, Riley was a mentor to the young Jesse Owens. “Life is a race. Run it as well as you can, for as long as you can,” he exhorted, liberally quoting from St. Paul. After high school, Riley persuaded Jesse to go to college and he arranged for him to be accepted into Ohio State University. There his athletic career flourished.

In 1936 the Olympic vision for Jesse Owens was fulfilled. He returned to America from Berlin, the hero of the Olympic Games. He had won the 100 metres, 200 metres, long jump and headed the victory of the 4 x 100-metre relay team. Never before had an athlete won four Olympic gold medals. It was to be 48 years before anyone would equal that feat. (In 1984, at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, Carl Lewis became the second man in history to claim four gold medals by winning the very same track and field events that Jesse Owens had competed in all those years ago.)

Shortly after the Olympics, his athletic career gave way to the more immediate affairs that affected the black people of his day. From the ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York City to the humiliation of having to enter a public bus by the back door and sit out of sight of white people, was just one of the many contradictions that surrounded the life of Jesse Owens and other Black American athletes in the 1930s.

Jesse Owens was more than an athlete with a list of great achievements, more than a hero for the crowds, or an idol for the moment. He was a messenger of a higher truth, an ambassador for peace and understanding, who worked long after his races had been run to fulfil a mission.

In a life that spanned 67 years and with a heart that spanned the globe, Jesse will be remembered not only as an immortal athlete but as a great servant of humanity.

When Jesse Owens passed away, Sri Chinmoy, a lifetime admirer of the immortal champion, held a memorial service in his honour at the United Nations in New York. Few could have captured the essence of Jesse Owens’ life as poignantly, as did Sri Chinmoy on that occasion. This was his speech:

“Spirituality means speed: speed in the inner world, speed in the outer world. In the inner world, speed is founded mostly upon aspiration. In the outer world, speed is founded mostly upon inspiration.

“There are some individuals who have speed in the inner world, while there are others who have speed in the outer world. There are few, very few, who have speed both in the inner world and in the outer world. Jesse Owens, the champion of champions, the immortal of immortals, had this rare speed both in the inner world and in the outer world. He is the colossal pride of the entire America.

“Finally, he is, indeed, a universal treasure. As the outer world treasures his fastest speed, even so, the inner world cherishes his bravest dedication that fought against poverty, darkness and ignorance in human life. He has contributed abundant speed and light to the entire world.” (April 22, 1980)

– End –

This article was first published in Runners: Oneness-World Harbingers magazine, page 19, September-October 1985, as part of a series entitled ‘The Immortals’ by Kishore Cunningham. 

Associated article: Two Champions of Peace


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