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Mike Rowbottom: Another Race to run for Jesse Owens, the legend who found a golden friendship at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

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“Race”, the film based on the life of athletics legend Jesse Owens, is garnering increasing levels of publicity ahead of its official launch date of February 19.

At the IAAF World Championships in Beijing, Owens’s middle daughter Beverly Owens Prather and granddaughter Donna Prather Williams were invited to take part in a discussion about their illustrious relative – and to whet the public appetite for the forthcoming cinema attraction – at a special event within the Olympic Park.

The following day, the granddaughter did the honours at the medal ceremony for the men’s 4x100m won by Usain Bolt and his fellow members of the Jamaican quartet.

Last month saw the release of the official poster for the Focus Features film – directed by Stephen Hopkins, with Stephan James as Jesse Owens and other stars including Academy Award winners Jeremy Irons and William Hurt.

This week another of Owens’s daughters – Marlene Owens Rankin – has spoken up, telling The Times that watching a screening of the biopic was “very difficult”, and adding: “It will show the kind of pressures my father had for most of his life. The fact he managed so well is, in a way, painful.”

The irony of Owens’s historic performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - where he managed to win four gold medals in an ugly moral environment where Nazi propaganda was already portraying Negroes as "black auxiliaries" - was that the pain he felt came not from his hosts, but his homeland.

In later years, the story was told - and not always discouraged by Owens himself - of how Adolf Hitler had snubbed him by refusing to shake his hand after his victories, his form of congratulation for German winners.

This was not so. Hitler had indeed shaken hands with all the German victors on the first day of competition, and with the three medal winners in the 10,000 metres, who were all from Finland, his future allies in the Second World War.

But Olympic officials then insisted he acknowledge publicly either all winners or none. Hitler chose the latter course, and so from the second day of competition, when Owens began his Olympics with the 100m heats, there was no question of his being personally greeted by the Führer.

(If there was one black American who might have expected that dubious honour, it was Cornelius Johnson, winner of the high jump at the end of the first day. Hitler left the Stadium early.)

“I don’t think he ever felt he was snubbed by Hitler,” Rankin said, adding that Owens was more “bothered” by not being invited to the White House by President Franklin D Roosevelt.

“He knew that Hitler might have been greeting other athletes who were medal winners, and he knew that Hitler said he would greet everyone or no one, but he did not feel individually snubbed. And I don’t think he really cared, frankly.”

Despite the racism of the Nazi regime, Owens found the atmosphere in Berlin personally supportive for much of the time. He was cheered by the crowd - "Yesseh Oh-vens, Yesseh Oh-vens" - and mobbed by autograph hunters.

While in the German capital, Owens was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites - something that was denied to his fellow black countrymen back in the United States.

The irony was compounded when Owens returned home - to a deafening silence from Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House. "Hitler didn't snub me - it was [FDR] who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram," he was quoted as saying in Triumph, Jeremy Schaap's book about the 1936 Games.

In winning the first of his four golds, the 100m, Owens equalled the Olympic record of 10.3sec. He later wrote: "Winning the 100m was the most memorable moment of all - to be known as the world's fastest human being."

But the most valuable Olympic moment of all for this youngest of 10 from a sharecropper’s family in Oakville, Alabama was the one which occurred shortly before he won his second gold, in the long jump, where he encountered the sportsmanship of a home athlete who would become a friend, Luz Long.

The German long jumper - tall, blue-eyed and blond - was the personification of the Aryan ideal of Nazi ideology. But he swiftly demonstrated that appearances can be deceptive.

The long jump qualifying distance was 7.15 metres - no cause for concern for Owens, who held the world record of 8.13m. But he failed to see the judges raising their flags to indicate the start of competition and, still wearing his tracksuit, performed a practice jump which was deemed as the first of his three efforts.

Put out, he fouled on his next attempt, leaving himself with only one remaining jump to ensure that he reached the final later in the day.

At this point, according to Owens, the embodiment of the Aryan ideal sauntered up to him and introduced himself in English. In his magnum opus, the Complete Book of the Olympics, David Wallechinsky reports the subsequent conversation thus:

“ ‘Glad to meet you,’ said Owens tentatively. ‘How are you?’ ‘I'm fine,’ replied Long. ‘The question is, how are you?’

“‘What do you mean?’ asked Owen.

“’Something must be eating you," said Long, proud to display his knowledge of American slang. "You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed."

Long then advised Owens to shift his starting marker back to lessen the risk of overstepping the take-off again. Owens did so, and duly qualified for that afternoon' final.

Owens took a first round lead with 7.74m. In the second round, generating a deep roar of approval within the Olympic Stadium, Long matched that mark, only for the American to respond with 7.87m.

Entering the fifth round, Long created uproar in an official tribune that contained not just Hitler but Goebbels, Goering, Hess and Himmler, by matching the leading distance.

As Owens prepared to respond, it was his German opponent who raised both arms in the air as if to still the ferment, casting a wary glance back to the official box. Owens then regained the lead with 7.94. By the time he underlined his victory with a final effort of 8.06m, Hitler had already left the Stadium in a rage…

"That business with Hitler didn't bother me," Owens later wrote. "I didn't go there to shake hands. What I remember most was the friendship I struck up with Luz Long. He was my strongest rival, yet it was he who advised me to adjust my run-up in the qualifying round and thereby helped me to win.

"We corresponded regularly until Hitler invaded Poland and then the letters stopped. I learnt later that Luz was killed in the War, but afterwards I started corresponding with his son and in this way our friendship was preserved."

Long was the first to congratulate Owens in his moment of victory.

"You can melt down all the medals and cups I have," Owens wrote. "And they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment."

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