Why Austrian kids wore blackface Jesse Owens: A boy who put shoe polish on his face to be like the 'Chocolate Comet'in the 1936 Olympics met his idol 36 years later.

July 28, 1996|By Hans Knight

IT SEEMS A LITTLE silly now, 60 years later, but it felt right at the time, even glorious, and it still warms my heart thinking about it. There we were, a bunch of impeccably white Austrian kids, running through the Vienna woods, faces smeared with itchy black show polish, intermittently yelling, "Oo-Eas-Ah."

Adults who saw us did double takes. Some smiled tolerantly, others touched forefingers to frowning brows. We didn't care.

This was 1936, and in far-off Berlin, they were holding the Olympic Games. We couldn't be there, of course, but we read the papers and listened to the crackling radio reports from the giant stadium. At night, we watched the grainy newsreels in our tiny movie theater.

Adolf Hitler's voice briefly came over the loudspeakers, as the Fuehrer stiffly announced the opening of the Games, followed by the joyous roar of about 100,000 spectators' throats. The Nazi takeover of Austria was less than two years in the future, but we had no way of knowing that. So we staged our own mini-Olympics in the leafy backyard of a cafe owned by a former world-class weightlifter who understood our athletic fervor.

We dressed up in the colors of various nations, painting our white T-shirts with crude approximations of their flags. But for most of us, there was only one Olympic superhero. The German sports reporters called him the Black Leopard and occasionally the Chocolate Comet. His real name was Jesse Owens. We knew little about him, then, except that he came from America. A country, to our minds, of skyscrapers, cowboys and gangsters. A strange, distant planet.

What we did learn, quickly, was that he was the man who could run faster than anybody. And we wanted to be him. We almost came to blows about it. We drew lots. One of us won. But in the end, childish ambition vanquished Olympic fair play, and we miraculously metamorphosed into an entire track team of Owenses. I can't honestly remember which of the ersatz Black Leopards won our puny Olympics. I do know it wasn't me. But I was proud to sweat and smart under the shoe polish. It was a small sacrifice on the altar of hero worship. I do not know how many in our sport-mad gang ever came to meet Jesse Owens. I was one of the lucky ones, though.

The childhood dream was fulfilled as Hitler's Reich was beginning to fade into foul memory. The date was Aug. 1, 1972. Jesse Owens came to Philadelphia at the invitation of the city recreation department to hand out silver medals to 34 young people who had won events in a citywide track meet. The ceremony took place at John F. Kennedy Plaza. (I was there as a reporter.) A fairly large crowd had gathered to see the sharecropper's son from Alabama who had lost a couple of races in junior high school but not many after that.

The years had been good to him. At 58, he looked trim and hard in his red and white checked jacket and rust colored slacks. As he made his way to the bandstand, his stride still hinted at the tool that won him four gold medals 36 summers before in swastika-flagged Berlin. Jack Kelly, no athletic slouch himself, introduced him as the greatest Olympian of them all.

Owens made a brief speech extolling the Olympic ideals and the value of sports to the young, then answered questions. Had Hitler really refused to shake his hand? "That's the story that went around," said Owens. "But I will never be sure. We went over there to win on the field. I didn't have time to worry about Hitler, up there in his box. Hitler? He was just one man in the crowd. Perhaps he wanted to snub me because I was black. . . . Nobody will know for sure."

Somebody asked what it was like, competing in the Olympics. He'd heard that question many times before.

"You stand there," he said. "Your mouth is dry as cotton. Your stomach isn't there. Your legs don't seem to carry you. Then the gun. You go. . . . Then you hear your national anthem, see your flag, and then you can say, 'I'm an Olympian, an Olympic champion.' That's how it happened to me."

He mingled with the adoring crowd to sign autographs.

Would he do it all again if he could, a middle-aged man asked "Oh yes," Jess Owens said, eyes blinking behind his glasses. "Yes . . . but every man has one moment in the sun. And I've had mine."

He could have said much more. He might have recalled that while America praised him for tearing Hitler's boast of Aryan superiority to shreds in the stadium in Berlin, that same America made him feel the stings of discrimination after he came home; that Franklin Roosevelt failed to invite him to the White House; that he was forced, at times, to do clownish things, like racing against a horse. It wasn't until President Gerald R. Ford's time that he saw the inside of the White House. He could have mentioned it, but he didn't. That, the Black Leopard would leave for the social historians to record. For, besides his medals, Jesse Owens possessed dignity.

The ceremony was over. He smiled and gently waved to the crowd. As he stepped to his waiting car, I buttonholed him. I blurted out the story about the kids who wanted to be like him.

"Well, how about that," he said, chuckling. "I had no idea. But it makes me feel proud, shoe polish, imagine that."

He winked and put out his hand. I shook it. Owens died in 1980, he was 66. I'm watching the Atlanta Olympics. They're fine. But it just isn't the same without Owens. Not for me.

Hans Knight was a reporter for the Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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