A lesson for Olympians

While the United States edged out China in gold medals at the Olympics—39 to 38—and took a commanding 113 total medals home to China’s 88, the luster of the gold and America’s participation was certainly lessened by all the political drama. At times, it seemed that many of the US athletes’ desire to “use their platform” to protest all the social injustices in America was far greater than their will to win as representatives of their country’s very best. Women’s soccer, men’s basketball, shot putting, fencing, hammer throwing, and others joined in to show that America was racially and sexually unjust. This belies the times past when athletes demonstrated against political injustice by their superb performances.

I was at a track meet in 1973 and there was a very humble black man with whom I struck up a conversation. He encouraged me to do my best in all things, whether it be the race I was to run or in life. He talked to me about pursuing excellence and being respectful to others. His name was Jesse Owens. If there was anyone of his time on the world stage who had a right to protest, it was him. Born in Alabama in 1913, he was in the heart of the South’s Jim Crow laws that Democrats used to oppress black people and make their lives miserable. His family moved to Ohio when he was nine years old to escape the Southern persecution and find opportunity. His speed on the track propelled him to the world stage when he broke four world records at the 1935 Big Ten meet as a member of The Ohio State University track team.

Still, Owens did not receive a scholarship, had to live off campus, and when he traveled with the team he had to stay at “black only” hotels and eat at “black only” restaurants. Prior tto he Hitler-hosted 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi Berlin, the Olympic Committee labeled Owens and other black US athletes as “un-American agitators.” As it went, Owens proceeded to win four golds, smashing apart Hitler’s theory of a superior “Aryan Race.” Hitler greeted only the German medal winners, but the Olympic Committee told him to greet all or none. After Owen’s victories, contrary to popular lore, Hitler slightly acknowledged Owens. Owens recounted the incident, “I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the “man of the hour” in another country.”

Despite all that Owens went through, he did not show any disrespect to anyone, nor did he exercise his “right” to protest what had happened to him in America or in Germany. He let his performance do his talking. His performance coupled with the man he was, was testimony to the world that he overcame poverty, prejudice, and racism to be the very best. Yes, Jesse Owens had the “right” to use his platform, but he chose not to even snub one of the most evil men in history because it would have been in “bad taste.” And years later, he took the time to personally encourage a young white boy to do his best. 1 Peter 2:17 says, “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.” Today’s US Olympians could learn from the barrier-breaking Mr. Owens.

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Bill Wilson