Q&A: Carl Lewis reflects on Jesse Owens
The name Jesse Owens is brought up every year during Black History Month. Owens, who took on Nazi Germany at the 1936 Summer Olympics and won four gold medals in track & field, is to this day a reigning symbol for aspiring African American athletes across the country.
Assistant track & field coach Carl Lewis matched Owens’ four gold medals at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and has remained in the public light ever since.
The Cougar took time to speak with Lewis about what Owens’ story means for African American athletes and what it took to win those four gold medals.
The Cougar: When did you first learn about Jesse Owens?
Carl Lewis: I ran a meet called the Jesse Owens Games back in Philadelphia in ’72. I didn’t really meet him — I kind of saw him — and then two years later I ran the same event in Philadelphia, so I had the chance to meet him then.
Each time, he gave this speech the night before and that was really inspiring for me because we came up as a civil rights family. So when I heard his speech about Hitler and everything, it fascinated me because times were different.
We didn’t have telephones, we didn’t have computers, we had to look in dictionaries for information. So I was really interested in what his story was, and going through that story I was able to find out that it was more than just Jesse Owens going to the Olympics and winning.
It was about racial issues he had to deal with coming back, the issues with the U.S. Olympic Committee — he was discriminated against there and really treated poorly by Avery Brundage. And it really peaked my interest in history, I’m a big World War II enthusiast.
TC: How crucial do you see it that people keep continuing to tell his story about what he did in ’36?
Lewis: What’s important is to tell what his story entailed. I even tell the guys here, I was born in Birmingham in 1961 and in ’63 the Girls were bombed just shortly thereafter, the hosing. All this stuff that was going on in my lifetime, it’s not like this distant thing that people don’t know about.
You’re actually with someone that was at the epicenter of what they called Bombingham then. So we have to tell these stories so they’re not repeated.
People know that Jesse had to race horses and things to earn a living. Well let’s just go back a bit. What really happened, how it started, was after the Olympic games he wanted to come home. He was married, he wanted to come home to his family. Well the U.S. Olympic Committee said ‘no, we already booked you to go to some meets in Europe.’ He said no, so they took away his amateur status. So that was what happened, just because he wanted to go home.
Avery Brundage, who was the head of the committee then, he was a guy who was evil, an evil, evil person, he took away his status. If I can’t pimp you, I’m going to take away your status.
So that’s why it all got started where he couldn’t continue to run, even at the amateur level and get exposure and attention. He was stopped and he had to come back to the racism deal here. He won four gold medals, was revered in the United States, but then he came back here and he went to the ticker tape parade for the Olympic team.
And then guess what, for the party he had to go up the service elevator. In New York City.
These are the issues that need to be told to these young people, and that’s everyone. The civil rights people wasn’t all black, everyone marched and everyone walked. So I think everyone needs to know these stories so we don’t try to repeat some of it.
TC: When did you first make that decision to try to match his feat?
Lewis: Like I said, I really got to meet him when I was 13. I was inspired. Then after ’81, when I finished that year I was No. 1 in the 100m and the long jump, and I was just a few inches away from the long jump world record, which was my goal. And then I went to coach (Tom) Tellez and I said ‘Do you think I can get all four?’ And he said ‘I don’t know. I’ve never coached it, I never tried it, I wasn’t around for Jesse. I don’t know.’
So it came down to, what my decision was, when your career ends would it be okay. It was a choice between focusing on the record in the long jump, which was my ultimate goal, and going for four, because coach Tellez said it’s probably going to hurt the other.
So when I made that decision, it really did hurt the long jump because once I started training for that, I stopped jumping for a while because I was spending so much time doing the other events.
But it was the right decision. I never had the world record outdoors, but it was the right decision. I really felt that if I had stayed at it, I could have had it. But if I had not gone for four then there’s no way right now in my life I could have said ‘Oh yeah I could’ve gotten four.’
That was a complete unknown and I focused on the unknown (rather) than something I thought I knew.
TC: Ultimately, what does the story of Jesse Owens mean to all sports?
Lewis: I think first of all it’s perseverance.
A guy who was born in Alabama and moved to Ohio, went to college and was focused on his education. He was a hard worker, family man, inspirational, understood his place at the games. Not going in, but he got to a point where he understood his power. He used that power.
Years later he struggled financially, I get it, but that didn’t diminish the fact that he understood his place in what he could do to inspire people.
Then later in his life the Jesse Owens Games became an event for thousands and thousands of kids to participate in, including myself. That’s what it is.
It’s someone who was inspired to be the best he could be, then the world was thrust upon him and he didn’t back down. Did it with pride through the difficulty, he had all the challenges and everything he had to deal with but he always had his pride. Pride and dignity and that’s why it all worked for him in the end. It’s almost like a do right and right comes by you.
That’s how he lived his life, and that’s why I think he’s revered and totally respected and should be by everyone around.