jesse owens 1936 winning
Photo: Associated Press

A common theme in the 2016 film Race, which explores the rise of the iconic track and field athlete (and personal hero of mine) Jesse Owens, is that sports and sportsmanship are above politics.

This was clear this summer in Rio when the IOC allowed 10 refugee athletes to compete under the Olympic flag: a symbol of the world, so often divided, united by sport.

The same message was spread much more subtly when two Korean gymnasts, usually separated by a wall, embraced each other for a selfie.

Yet, although the Olympic rings radiate this image of inclusivity and unity, the racial prejudices that scar our everyday world still reign free under the surface.

Nowadays it’s a lot more nuanced and casual than in Hitler’s Berlin, where Owens competed in a hugely politically-motivated Games, but it’s just as damaging. There remains a level of shock and distress that in some instances, black athletes are just better than their white counterparts.

In 1936, the Nazis looked on in disbelief as the crowd went wild for Jesse Owens. He shattered the image of the Aryan ideal, winning four Gold medals in the process. He paved the way for successive black athletes, in any discipline, to be celebrated on the world stage despite the colour of their skin.

Here’s footage of him doing just that in the men’s 100m:

And in the men’s long jump:

Though racism, often blatant, still shrouds this celebration.

Simone Biles, the 19-year-old American gymnast, won four Golds and a Bronze in Rio. Her success was put down to her gymnastic prowess as a child, her extraordinary discipline and commitment, and her small stature which makes seemingly impossible gymnastics look easy.

She was presented in the media as a beacon of light for young, disadvantaged blacks: she came from a tough background and is now an Olympic Gold medallist, so of course anything is possible.

This is true. It has been proven time and again by black athletes that black people, generally disadvantaged due to their skin colour, can achieve greatness in sport. Owens, Biles, Usain Bolt, Muhammad Ali, Carl Lewis, and Serena Williams to name a few, are all testaments to this statement. But with that greatness does not come freedom from racial prejudice.

“Next time we should paint our skin black so we can win,” giggled Carlotta Ferlito, an Italian gymnast scorned by Biles’ success in 2013. She later apologised for her remark, but then an Italian Gymnastics Federation official allegedly commented that there are no good black swimmers “because they don’t have the buoyancy”. And no, they didn’t mean to be racist: according to Ferlito it was a “mistake”.

But it’s not just fellow athletes and officials who are to blame. The representation of Serena Williams, a four-time Olympic Gold medallist, and others by the media and wider society has been far from acceptable:

As you can see, American Pharaoh is a horse.

What about LeBron James? The NBA basketball player and three-time Olympic Gold medallist posed for Vogue in 2008 and was immediately compared to King Kong:

lebron james vogue king kong

And in Cuba in 1937, after his astounding performance in Berlin, Jesse Owens raced a horse. He won, but the racist sentiment that he and a horse were similar enough to race against each other is profound. Unfortunately, there is no sound:

Despite their wins, black athletes are still portrayed as lesser. Subhuman. Animals. And in a world of perpetual racism, no number of gold medals is going to change that.

But black youth can still be empowered to break the stereotypes.

Owens’ ground-breaking achievements live on in the successes of black athletes in the present day. His legacy transcends generations and empowers young people to take up sport. We look at Biles, Mo Farah, and Bolt as icons – and they are all equally exceptional athletes in their own right – but we have to thank Owens for being the first challenger of racism in sport, especially due to the context of his time.

Oh, sorry, what was that? Black people can’t swim? Take a look at Simone Manuel of the USA, who won Gold in the women’s 100m freestyle in Rio. Another racist myth broken. Congratulations.


-Author: Kimberley John

Kimberley John is a second year journalism student at the University of Sheffield

See more of her work here:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s