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He mastered Hitler
Jesse Owens centennial

Date published: 9/12/2013

THE LURE of sports as entertainment is suspense: No one knows for sure how the game's going to end. Sometimes, unlike in the movies, the hero can and does lose to the dastardly villain.

Such disappointments only make justice's sporadic victories sweeter. A century ago today, Jesse Owens was born. Before he was 23 years old, he would become the ultimate personification of good triumphing over evil.

Hollywood could not have scripted it so well. The African-American son of an Alabama sharecropper and grandson of slaves becomes the greatest track and field athlete in the world. He goes to the heart of darkness, Berlin in 1936, and wins four gold medals under Adolf Hitler's twitching mustache, giving the swastika-flying "master race" a preview of coming disappointments.

Watching Owens in the blocks before his 100-meter dash in Berlin, he seems focused and maybe a little nervous. Then, when the pistol sounds, he moves ahead of everyone with such ease that you wonder, as many have with Usain Bolt, how one man of all the men in the world could be so much faster than all the rest. He won the gold in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and as a member of the 4 x 100 relay team. And Berlin wasn't even Owens' most impressive stage.

That came the year before, on May 25, 1935, in the Big Ten championships in Ann Arbor, Mich. That day, Owens tied or broke four world records in one 45-minute span. The Ohio State sophomore tied the 100-yard dash record, set a long-jump world record that would stand for 25 years, broke the world mark in the 220, and became the first person to run the 220-yard low hurdles in under 23 seconds.

At the Olympics, the hardest part for Hitler might have been the enthusiastic response to Owens by the German people, who roared their approval at the Olympic Stadium and beseeched him for autographs on the streets.

In the movies, Owens would have been carried around in a sedan chair for the rest of his life as an adoring nation threw palm branches before him and plied him with love and riches. In real life, Owens came back to America to again sit at the rear of the bus.

"I had to go to the back door," he said later. "I couldn't live where I wanted. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either."

Life, like sports, doesn't always serve the good guys or the bad ones their just desserts. Jesse Owens, who gave his country the happiest ending imaginable in Berlin in 1936, could attest to that.