NEW YORK -- On Aug. 9, 1936, Jesse Owens ran the first leg of the 400 relay at the Berlin Olympics, a race that would lead to the last of his four gold medals in Germany. On Aug. 16, the final day of those Games, Owens was suspended by the Amateur Athletic Union for refusing to take part in the last leg of the cash-grab tour through Europe put on by the AAU and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Owens wasn't paid for his exhibition stops in Cologne, Germany, Prague or London, and was so strapped for cash that he would bum meals off fellow passengers. So before boarding a plane headed for Stockholm, the final stop on the tour, Owens had had enough: He would take his four golds and go home.
That's all it took to go from Olympic hero to dishonorable AAU discharge. Owens hadn't even set foot back on U.S. soil, but he was being taught a lesson.
After a weeklong voyage across the Atlantic, Owens arrived in New York and was slapped in the face yet again when hotel after hotel refused him and his wife service. Just weeks earlier he'd been the most celebrated athlete in the world; now he couldn't get a room in New York City. It wasn't until the Hotel Pennsylvania obliged, on the condition that he use the service entrance, that Owens could finally rest. Things would only get worse.
I have a confession to make: I didn't know much about Jesse Owens, at least not before I sat down with Jeremy Schaap, author of Triumph, The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics, and Schaap told me about Berlin and its aftermath as he signed books at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York's Harlem.
"The riches that he deserved for what he achieved certainly did not come his way," Schaap says. "All the promises people had made to him in telegrams days after the Olympics all turn out to be fictitious. They were publicity stunts, $20,000 here, $10,000 there - none of it materializes, so he realizes pretty quickly it isn't going to be easy to capitalize on what he achieved."
Of course, I knew the name, Jesse Owens. And I knew about the four golds in Berlin. And I knew what he had accomplished was in the face of Adolf Hitler in the den of the Third Reich. And I knew he'd shown the world that the black athlete not only belonged on the big stage, but also could own it.
But it was the image of the post-1936 Owens that I'd been unable to shake, the Owens who was too black to be of any use off an oval track, too black to earn dollars off his name. There were no beer commercials, no Wheaties boxes - a black athlete wouldn't receive that honor until Roy Campanella in 1952. Owens was reduced to sideshows, using his talents to race against horses to put food on the table.
"That wasn't respectable," says Tommie Smith, the black athlete who along with John Carlos raised black-gloved fists into the air at the Mexico City Games in 1968 to expose racial injustice, turning their medal stand into a platform of social protest. "You're not going to get Tommie Smith racing a horse. Get the rider off the horse and I'll race him."
Owens became a sad reminder of the realities of the black experience, casually swept away without a thought. To me, he wasn't Tommie Smith or John Carlos. He wasn't Ali or Arthur Ashe. He didn't resonate in ways of social change.
He was "the convenient role model," Schaap says. "He willingly is used. He becomes an example of the possibilities of America even for its minorities."
He was the disposable athlete.
"He was old school, he was behind the times," Smith says. And when Owens was summoned in the summer of '68 to ease tensions with blacks of those Mexico City Games, he was running again, but this time, Smith says, in the wrong direction.
"He was sent to infiltrate, to get our trust," Smith says. "He needed to be set straight. We were black athletes fighting for our civil rights and human rights."
In Owens' era, blacks didn't protest, they performed.
Owens didn't understand these men, and for that I didn't understand Owens. He was from another time, a time when winning a race was as important as sticking a fist into the air. He wasn't militant in any sense. He was the grandson of slaves, the son of a man terrified of the white land owners for whom he worked, Schaap says.
Early in 1980, Tommie Smith wrote a letter to Owens. Smith, then in his 30s, wanted to reach out to the man he'd admired as a boy and set the record straight.
"You're a great man," Smith wrote, "and anything that involved my name that disrespected you I want to apologize for. I only did what I believed in, which was gaining civil rights for black people."
Weeks later Owens would die of cancer. "I don't know if he ever got the letter," Smith says.
It wasn't too late for Tommie Smith to reach out to Jesse Owens. I hope it's not too late for me.
Eric Barrow writes for the New York Daily News.