Friday, 4 May 2012

It don’t matter if you’re black or white...

Looking back at some of the world’s greatest Olympians-of-old, I was surprised at how obstacles many have had to navigate on top of the pressures of the sport: injury, drug abuse, gender issues, religious persecution and racism, to name but a few.

Take Jesse Owens, for example. One of the most memorable figures in Olympic history, Jesse was snubbed, bullied and intimidated because of the colour of his skin...

When coach Charlie Riley saw Jesse run for the first time, he immediately recognised the raw natural talent of the young man and invited him to run for the track team. At Cleveland East Technical High School Jesse became a track star, tying the world record in the 100-yard dash with a time of 9.4 seconds.

But while he was at The Ohio State University, he experienced shocking racism. He was forced to live off-campus with the other African-American athletes and when he travelled with the team, he could either order takeaway or eat at “blacks only” restaurants. He slept in “blacks only” hotels.

This didn’t stop him from achieving the highest sporting accolades, though. In 1935, Jesse set three World Records and tied a fourth, all in about 70 minutes. Ironically, earlier in the week he had fallen down a flight of stairs, injuring his back. Imagine what he could have done if he’d been totally fit that day!

At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Jesse was triumphant in the 100-metre dash, the 200-metre dash and the broad jump in Berlin. He was also a key member of the 400-metre relay team that won gold. In all but one of these events, Jesse set Olympic records. He was the first American in the history of Olympic track and field to win four gold medals in a single Games.

He did experience racism again at the event, which Adolf Hitler had hoped to use to demonstrate superiority of the ‘master race’. This was somewhat undermined by Jesse’s success, and by the end even the German crowds were cheering him to victory.

But even after achieving such greatness, he returned home to more racism. “After I came home from the 1936 Olympics with my four medals, it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job,” he said. 

He added that although he felt Hitler had tried to snub him by refusing to shake hands with him, it was Roosevelt that really let him down. The US president didn’t even send him a telegram to congratulate him on his success.

Seventy-five years on, Jesse is remembered as one of the greatest Olympians of all time, but unfortunately he didn’t succeed in ending racism in sport. Headlines were made earlier in the year by footballers accused of aiming racist slurs at black players, and plenty of footballers have complained of racism at overseas games.

It baffles me that people can be so prejudiced and ignorant. I just hope the London Games succeeds in bringing people together whatever the colour of their skin! 

Read more Games-related articles in the next issue of Sorted - it's an Olympics special and is not to be missed!

1 comment:

  1. Yes, racism, like any form of prejudice is something that leaves a bitter taste in many people's mouths. I believe that when we choose to be racist, or prejudiced in any way for that matter, it's not only the person on the receiving end of such prejudice that can suffer, it also limits the person who is racist too. For a Christian, there has to be an understanding that God does not want us to unfairly judge anyone, for any reason, and that the love He shows us miserable sinners is the love we must show to every person we meet or are involved with in some way.