If there was a prize for the best film title of the year, it would definitely go to Race, the story of Jesse Owens’ victories at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That single word manages to embody the many facets of a story which encompasses sport, politics and the triumph of the human spirit.
The film focuses on two vital years in Owens’ life, from his arrival at Ohio State University at the age of 19, to the Olympics in Berlin two years later.
The U.S.A. seriously considered boycotting the Games, to protest against Hitler's Nazi policies. In the end, the team went and Owen's performance spoke much louder than a boycott could have to disprove Hitler's views on the superiority of the Aryan race. Owens, an African American, won four gold medals, an exploit that wasn't repeated for 48 years after Berlin.
The Birth of a Star
Jesse Owens was born in Alabama in 1913, one of ten children. His grandparents had been slaves and his parents were poor sharecropper farmers. But when Owens was nine, his family followed many others in the Great Migration. Black families from the American South were no longer enslaved but still desperately poor and suffered from segregation. From 1916, millions of them migrated towards the industrial cities in the north in search of a better life. The First World War had stopped immigration into the U.S.A., and industry was desperate for manpower.
Jesse Owens excelled in sports at high school and his prowess won him a place at Ohio State University. As a star of sprinting, long and high jump, Owens started breaking world records. A place at the 1936 Olympics was guaranteed… if the U.S.A. participated.
Race dramatises the duel between two officials on the U.S. Olympic committee, Avery Brundage and Jeremiah Mahoney. Mahoney wanted to boycott the Berlin Games on moral grounds. Brundage believed sport and politics mustn’t mix.
The Games and After
Owens’ success at the Games made him an international star. But back home in the U.S.A., he was still a poor black man. Much has been made of Hitler snubbing Owens. Less is said about his own president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who didn’t meet or congratulate Owens as he would normally do with sporting champions.
Owens needed to make a living from running, and couldn’t afford to remain an amateur. In any case, the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled because of Second World War. Owens had a variety of jobs and businesses, and did tireless work for the Boys’ Clubs of America and as an Ambassador for Sports for the State Department. He finally made it to the White House in 1976 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour given by the U.S. government. Jesse Owens died in 1980.