She was 18 years old at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a competitor in the high jump and the 4×100 relay. She did not win any medals but the tall woman from Lage Vuursche in Holland, but she did get the autograph of one Jesse Owens.
Owens was the star of the 1936 Games, reportedly showing up der Fuhrer by winning four gold medals. Fanny Blankers-Koen would also go on to win four gold medals in the Olympics, but she would have to wait 12 more years, as the Olympics were cancelled during the war years, before she could compete on the highest stage.
Watch the video above of the first woman to win four gold medals, which she did at the 1948 London Olympics. Blankers-Koen was absolutely dominant.
In her first competition, Blankers-Koen led the 100-meter dash nearly from start to finish.
In her next event, she had to work the hardest, coming from behind to barely win the 80-meter hurdles, but still in Olympic record time.
In her third triumph, Blankers-Koen won the 200-meters in the first lane, eating up the water-drenched track like a locomotive, well ahead of the 2nd place finisher, in Olympic record time.
And finally, in 4×100 meter relay, the Dutch team, in their orange shorts, were trailing in third when their anchor, Blankers-Koen took the baton. And like a rocket, she shot to the lead and crossed the line with her fourth gold medal.
Like her hero in Berlin, Jesse Owens, Blankers-Koen won four gold medals, the first woman ever to do so. According to the Smithsonian, Blankers-Koen met Owens again, this time in Munich in 1972.
“I still have your autograph,” she told her hero. “I’m Fanny Blankers-Koen.”
“You don’t have to tell me who you are,” Owens replied. “I know everything about you.”
Decades ago, the Olympics represented the very best of the so-called “amateur” athlete, those who excelled at a sporting discipline and did not receive financial gain from it. The Sullivan Award has had a storied history of recognizing the very best athletes in the United States who happened to be amateurs, including such greats as golfer Bobby Jones, basketball player Bill Bradley, swimmer Mark Spitz and American football quarterback Peyton Manning.
Today, athletes in a much wider variety of sports have ways to make an income in their sport, via competition prize money, professional leagues, and sponsorship deals, which render the pool for Sullivan Award recipients shallower than decades past.
And yet, when the obvious choice for the Sullivan Award winner of 1936 was Jesse Owens, arguably the athlete with the most significant accomplishments of the Berlin Olympics, the powers that be selected Glenn Morris, the winner of the Olympic decathlon. Winning the gold in the decathlon, perhaps in another year, should have been enough to win the Sullivan. But Owens, who was a black American, took four gold medals under the glare of Adolph Hitler in a clearly bigoted regime. Morris was white, and that may have been the overriding criteria for the judges.
“We have overlooked people,” Roger J. Goudy, president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) acknowledged in this New York Times article. “Jesse Owens went to Berlin and won four Olympic gold medals in 1936. He did not win the Sullivan, which went to his white teammate Glenn Morris in a close vote, 1,106 to 1,013. Owens had been the overwhelming winner of The Associated Press poll for the best athlete of the year, amateur or professional.”
But yesterday, on April 11, 2017, a wrong was righted. Jesse Owens was awarded the inaugural Gussie Crawford Lifetime Achievement Award. The award was presented to Owen’s granddaughter, Gina Hemphill-Strachan. She had this to say about her grandfather:
I would say the thing that makes me most proud of his legacy is the fact that he does have a legacy. At 80 years after his accomplishments in Berlin, that he’s still relevant. People still speak about him with such passion and compassion and reverence. He certainly left a mark with so many young people because he was an unofficial ambassador, traveled all over the world, speaking to so many young people, encouraging young people, training and all that.
“I tell you something, it is tough to win the long jump and something else, period,” he added. “I think we kind of overstate how easy it (winning four events at one meet) is. And for him to do it back then with all he had to deal with…I looked at him as someone to aspire to, someone to emulate, not just athletically.”
According to Ron Perelmen of the Sports Examiner, this belated recognition of Owens was due to Peter Cava, a former communications director for the AAU.
“Soon after I went to work for AAU in 1974, the ’73 Sullivan Award winner was announced,” said Cava. “Looking over the list of previous winners, it was shocking to see that Jesse Owens’ name wasn’t on the list.” When Cava noted at the Rio Olympics that it was the 80th anniversary of Owens’ historical accomplishments, he thought it was about time to recognize him. “The Sullivan Award has been called ‘An Oscar for Amateurs,’ said Cava. “The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents Oscar Awards for lifetime accomplishments.”
So here we are, 80 years later, finally recognizing Jess Owens as we should – as one of the greatest athletes of all time.
There was a time when the Japanese were seen as great jumpers. In the years between the great world wars of the 20th century, Japanese men in particular were frequent medalists in the triple jump, long jump and pole vault. Shuhei Nishida won silver in the pole vault at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Sueo Oe won bronze in the pole vault in 1936 as well.
Naoto Tajima won the gold medal in the triple jump in 1936, making it the third consecutive Olympics that a Japanese won the hop, skip and jump – Mikio Oda won it in 1928 in Amsterdam, while Chuhei Nambu took gold at the 1932 LA Games.
Tajima may have won gold in the triple jump, but he enjoyed his bronze medal in the long jump even more. He is said to have considered the triple jump just a simple matter of technique while the long jump was more of a profession, something requiring a more serious, in-depth approach. Perhaps also significantly, Tajima’s long jump competition at the 1936 Olympics was one of historical significance, not just in sports but also geo-politically.
Tajima took a relatively unnoticed bronze to Jesse Owens‘ gold and Luz Long‘s silver in the long jump. Owens had already won gold in the 100 meters, winning the title “fastest man in the world” in front of Adolph Hitler. A day later, on a day Owens would have to run a heat in the 200-meters race, he took on a strong German team in the long jump. In this oft-told tale, the battle for gold came down to Owens and Long. While Owens led throughout the competition, Long stayed close behind, as you can see in the round-by-round details here.
In the end, Owens won with a stunning 8.06 meter leap which set an Olympic record, and that Long could not match. Long put his arm around Owens after the American’s victory, creating an image worldwide that encouraged those who believed a world of peace and brotherhood was possible. But while we may forget there were other competitors, we should be reminded there was a third person on the medal stand – Naoto Tajima of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi.
His medal in the triple jump and the long jump at the 1936 Berlin Games were the last for a Japanese in Athletics, until Naoko Takahashi won the women’s marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Jesse Owens was special for several reasons, but his four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was an accomplishment that shone as bright as his spectacular statement of race and merit. Since that time, no one else had achieved the feat of four Olympic championships in a single Olympiad.
No one, that is, until Don Schollander swam to glory in the stunning National Gymnasium in Yoyogi in 1964. Schollander won gold in the 100-meter freestyle, 400- meter freestyle, and the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle relays.
And a fifth gold medal was definitely within his reach. One could argue it was his for the taking…until it wasn’t.
At the time, there was an unwritten rule within the US swim team that the winner of the 100-meter freestyle gets to take the freestyle leg of the 100-meter medley relay race. The 100-meter medley is a competition made up of four styles of swimming – the butterfly, the backstroke, the breaststroke and freestyle – each one swum by a different person for two lengths of the 50-meter pool.
As explained in part 1 of this series, Schollander, unexpectedly to all except Schollander, won the 100-meter freestyle race. Thus he expected the unwritten rule to be enforced, and to be told to assume his rightful place as the anchor leg of the 100-meter medley relay team.
But when he met with the coaches, Schollander’s place on the medley team appeared tenuous. According to Schollander in his book, Deep Water, the coaches thought that Steve Clark was the fastest 100-meter freestyle swimmer on the team, and if not for bursitis, he would certainly have finished better than fourth in the Olympic Trials.
The coaches decided that they would use the 4×100 freestyle relays to determine who would swim the freestyle leg. Clark, followed by Mike Austin, Gary Ilman and Schollander won the finals handily, trouncing Germany by a full four seconds and set a world record. Clark’s time in the relay was 52.9 seconds, a tenth of a second faster than Schollander. Clark joined the 4×100 meter medley team, and would go onto set another world record to win the gold.
Schollander would most certainly have met the same result if he were on the medley team. When someone said to him before the decision was made, “You’re going to win four gold medals, anyhow. What do you care whether you get one more? What’s the difference between four and five?” Schollander viewed this as a matter of “justice”. But perhaps he also viewed this as one of those rare opportunities for historic significance.
Certainly in the back of my mind I was aware that this could mean my fifth gold medal. And it wouldn’t be just one more gold medal – it would be an unprecedented fifth gold medal. No swimmer had ever won four gold medals at an Olympics, but nobody in history – in any sport – had ever won five. But this wasn’t my arguing point. I felt that I had earned the spot on the medley relay team.
Mark Spitz, a teammate of Schollander’s in Mexico City, would go on to win an incredible 7 gold medals in Munich in 1972. Michael Phelps would go onto greater heights, grabbing 8 golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But before there was Phelps and Spitz, there was Schollander – one of the brightest stars of Tokyo in 1964.
The 18-year old from Oswego, Oregon became the Golden Boy of the 1964 Olympics. Before there was Mark Spitz, there was Don Schollander, who won four swimming gold medals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In fact, Schollander became the first person to win four golds in a single Olympics since 1936, when a man named Jesse Owens blazed to glory a the Berlin Olympics.
But the four gold medals was in some part hinging on a race strategy of deception, in a competition that Schollander was not commonly a participant – the 100-meter freestyle. Schollander was dominant in the middle and long-distance competitions of the 400 and 1,500 meters. And as he mentioned in his 1971 autobiography, Deep Water, only Olympic champion Johnny Weissmuller had won both the 400 and 100-meter races. “The two races are just very different and training for them is different. In the 100-meter, the emphasis is on speed, in the 400, on endurance. In the 1,500 the emphasis is also on endurance, obviously, and the 400 and the 1,500 are a fairly common double. But I had made up my mind to swim the 100.”
The press believed there was a likelihood that Schollander could win gold in the 400-meter freestyle, the 4×100-meter freestyle relay and the 4×200 meter freestyle, in addition to the 100-meter freestyle. But the 100-meter freestyle, arguably the marquee swimming event, was the first one, which put pressure on Schollander, who had little experience at this distance.
…because it was my first event, I felt that this race could make me or break me for the rest of the Games. If I won, I would be ‘up’ for the rest of my events – my confidence would be flying high. If I lost, I would be ‘down.’ That sounds temperamental, but I have seen an early race work this way on swimmers. So this 100 free took on much more importance than just another event.
Because Schollander was seen as more of an endurance swimmer, who took advantage of his extraordinarily strong kick to dominate in the latter half of a competition, it was a foregone conclusion that Schollander’s strategy would be to win in the second half of the 100 meters. And Schollander made sure everyone believed that was how he planned to swim his race, even though the conventional wisdom was to take the first 50-meters and hold on for the latter half. Schollander pointed out a couple of reasons why that was a valid strategy.
A hundred meters is a short distance, so a quick lead can be maintained to the end. The second more important reason is that in the 100-meters, all swimmers hit the wall at the 50-meter mark at nearly the same time, which creates a tremendous amount of backwash at the wall. If you’re behind the top swimmers, the backwash can hit you hard enough to slow you down enough to cost you in a short race. As Schollander explains, “any swimmer who is even a split second behind turns right into this wash. And swimming against it is like swimming against a rip tide. This was is peculiar to the sprint.”
So Schollander knew he had to be out in front with the leaders at the mid-point to have a chance at leveraging his advantage of endurance. But he thought it would be better to let his competitors think that he was a second-half swimmer.
So I began to talk about my second lap. Whenever someone would ask me how things looked in the 100 free, I would emphasize my second lap. I would say, “well, I’m a middle-distance swimmer and I may not have much speed, but I have a good last lap.” Or, “You know, I’m a come-from-behind swimmer. I’ve always got my last lap.” Even my friends began to talk about my last lap. I wanted everyone in that race to think that if he was going to beat me, he had to do it early – because he would never do it on the second lap.
Schollander was strong and confident enough to play this ruse through the preliminary rounds. In the qualifying heats, he swam the first 50 in 25.9 seconds, while those winning the early heats were doing so in 25.1 or 25.2 seconds. And true to the script, Schollander powered to a finish strong enough to advance. So when it came to the finals, Schollander was in the final eight, along with teammates Mike Austin and Gary Ilman, Alain Gottvalles of France, Hans Klein of Germany and Bobby McGregor of Great Britain.
True to his secret plan, Schollander blasted into the pool, not in the lead, but just behind. If his plan worked, he hoped to get into the heads of his competitors.
All week I had worked to convince everyone that I was a dangerous man in the second lap. In the heads and in the semi-finals I had held back at the start and shot ahead in the second lap. Now I burned up that first lap, hoping to be right with them at the turn. I hoped that for an instant they would panic and think, “What’s wrong? Did I go out slower than I thought? If he’s right here with me now, what will do to me in the second lap?
Five swimmers hit the 50-meter wall at about the same time of 25.3 seconds, far better than the standard of 25.9 seconds Schollander wanted the others to see in the preliminary races. Ilman hit some waves off the wall and that may have thrown him off. Schollander could tell he was pulling away in the second half of the race and thought he would win, until he noticed the speedy Scotsman, McGregor, actually ahead of the Oswegan.
Going back, on the second lap, because I could breathe to the right, I could see that I was ahead of all of them and pulling away. But I couldn’t see McGregor, to my left, in lane two. Ten meters away from the wall, I actually had the thought – and I’ll never forget it – I’m going to win! I’m going to win! But at that point, although didn’t know, it McGregor was actually ahead of me. With 5 meters to go he was still ahead. He had gone out so fast that, if I had not gone out as fast as I did, there would have been no way I could have caught him. But he had gone out too fast, and during those last 10 meters he was decelerating and I was accelerating. And I just touched him out. I just touched him out – by one-tenth of a second.
It was day two of the competition and Schollander unexpectedly took gold, setting up the prospects of at least 3 more. As he told the AP after the race, “It’s the greatest feeling of my life.”
Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin in 1936, and came home to American a hero…for about a week…before he was then treated like any other black American. Unable to find work, he gave up his amateur status and earned a living as an entertainer, most famously sprinting and winning against thoroughbred horses. “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
Archie Williams was a teammate of Owens, one of ten black Americans on that 1936 USA team at the Berlin Olympics. And while he didn’t get the fanfare of Owens, Williams was already the owner of the world record time in the 400 meters, and would go on to win the gold medal in the 400 in Berlin. After the Olympics, Williams went on to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in mechanical engineering, as well as in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Engineering School at Wright-Patterson Field, as well as in meteorology from UCLA.
But as was true for the majority of blacks in America, it was a challenge to get the opportunities to get ahead. Williams was quoted as saying, “When I came home, somebody asked me, ‘How did those dirty Nazis treat you?’ I replied that I didn’t see any dirty Nazis, just a lot of nice German people. And I didn’t have to ride in the back of the bus over there.”
Williams was a graduate of Berkeley with a degree in engineering in a war-time economy that could only be described as heated. But, Williams could not find gainful employment at places like GM or GE that were hiring to keep up with demand, as he explained in the oral history of American Olympians, Tales of Gold.
Those big corporations just weren’t hiring black people. They weren’t, and who else would? Look, I had a job one summer making $5 a week chopping weeds for the East Bay Water Company. Later I thought about working as an engineer for them. And I talked to the guy down there, but he said, “Sorry about that.”
Williams had a passion for planes, and wanted to become a pilot. He eventually got a job “gassing airplanes”, which is essentially fueling the planes, and warming them up. He had to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, but he also got to fly, build up his hours in the air, and get his flying qualifications. And yet, he couldn’t get up that next rung in the career ladder, as he explained. “That was early in 1941. Again, a black guy with a pilot’s license and an instructor’s rating; he’s…well, he’s nothing. Even the guy I worked for couldn’t hire me as a flying instructor. He’d have lost all his business.”
There were apparently very few black pilots in the 1940s, and even fewer opportunities for them in America. But as is often the case, war forces people to look beyond color. The US Army had established a training center for African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama, where blacks were educated at Tuskegee University and trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field. Williams one day in 1941 heard about the Tuskegee program, and took his pilot’s license and mechanical engineering degree to the Tuskegee Institute.
Williams began his career as a pilot instructor in Alabama, and his first students were the famed Tuskegee Airmen, whose planes were called Red Tails for the color of the tails on their P-47s and P-51s, and who went on to fighting glory in North Africa and Italy.
I was a big tennis fan when I was growing up in Queens, New York, getting lessons at Cunningham Park, and playing with friends on the awful concrete court on the grounds of the Queens General Hospital. And I remember in the 1970s watching Breakfast at Wimbledon on NBC, with Bud Collins, when Bjorn Borg was the dominant male tennis player of the time, routinely defeating Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas and Roscoe Tanner. And I remember the epic five-setter in 1980 when John McEnroe lost to Borg at Wimbledon. Bud Collins was always there.
But what I just learned is that Bud Collins, who essentially began his journalistic career as a college student for his school paper, went, somewhat on a whim, to the 1948 London Olympic Games as a spectator. The goal was to cheer on a fellow Baldwin-Wallace College student, William Harrison Dillard.
A few years ago, Collins wrote this wonderful article for ESPN, recalling his early days in Berea, Ohio, where he literally delivered newspapers (Cleveland Plain Dealer) on the Baldwin-Wallace campus and its environs as a 14-year old. When he became a BW student, world-class hurdler Dillard also decided to join BW. Dillard could have gone to Ohio State, the alma mater of Jesse Owens, the last American to win Olympic gold in the 100 meters in 1936, but as Collins relates in the article, Dillard wanted to stay closer to home.
Collins continues to write this amazing story of how Dillard was pretty much expected to win gold in the 110 meter hurdles easily at the re-boot Olympics in 1948, the first Olympics since Berlin in 1936, postponed for 12 years due to world war. (in fact, Dillard served in the US military, seeing significant action on the Italian front.) But for some reason, at the Olympic trials, Dillard competed poorly and would not be asked to compete as a hurdler. He did place third in the 100 meters, so was put on the team to possibly compete in the 400-meter relay team.
So when young Bud Collins, and his editor on the school paper, decided to use their savings and borrow money so they could go to London, there was only a slim possibility of watching their buddy, “Bones” Dillard, compete at the 1948 Olympic Games. As it turned out, in a London still climbing out of the rubble of World War II, Dillard was crowned the fastest man in the world, and a budding journalist named Bud Collins was there.
Hayes Jones was about to run the race of his life. His wife, Odeene Jones, was seated next to Jesse Owens in the National Olympic Stadium, saying to the 4-time gold medalist that Hayes hadn’t been executing on this strategy going into the finals. Owens told her not to be concerned.
And yet, there was Jones, anxiously prepping for the start of the 110-meter hurdles final, placing his starting blocks into the red cinder track. “I was setting up my blocks, and this Japanese official tapped me on my shoulder. I was annoyed. He tapped me again and pointed down. I look at the starting blocks and I see I had placed them backwards. That would have been a disaster. I was nervous.”
And then off went the gun. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember one thing about the race. I had run it so many times, I ran this one as rote. I do remember lunging for the tape, but that’s all I remember. I was that focused.”
But when Jones hit the tape, his US teammate, Blaine Lindgren, was there as well, on his left. And Anatoly Mikhailov from the USSR was running through at the same time on his right. “My goodness! Who won?” wondered Jones. “You can look at someone’s eyes and usually know, but we all had that stare – ‘Who won?’ They corralled us underneath the stadium. The Russian coach ran over to his guy. I thought he won. I didn’t see my coach close by – he was against the wall smoking a cigarette. I’ll be damned. I must not have won.”
As was true with almost every single other athlete in Tokyo, Jones trained hard to get to this moment. He and his wife sacrificed financially to be able to train for the Olympics, to make sure he was in top condition and form so that he could be the best in the world. And at that moment of truth, he had to wait and wait. And then the scoreboard lit up. “‘Ladies and gentlemen, the results of the men’s 110-meter hurdles…’ And I watched as the name in the number one slot was being typed J-O-N-E-S U-S-A 13.6 seconds.”
“That’s when I knew I won and my dreams had come true.”
The president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, was the one to place the gold medal around Jones’ neck, which Jones found ironic. In 1961, after his return from the Rome Olympics, Jones thought he would use his secondary education degree to become a track coach. According to Jones, Brundage directed Dan Ferris of the USOC to advise Jones that if he accepted a stipend for coaching track in a high school, he would not be eligible for the Olympics. “So I left teaching and began to sell real estate and insurance. The guy who put the medal around my neck was the guy who denied me from pursuing my career dream. But the only thing I could think of was back as a young boy in Pontiac, Michigan, wanting to participate in track and field, and people around me encouraging me to keep trying.”
Jones and his wife went out to town to celebrate the day after his golden victory.
“We were eating steak, probably Kobe steak. All of the sacrifices we made. I couldn’t pursue my educational career in teaching. I had to go out and sell real estate and insurance, not certain how much money I was going to make. My wife was a teacher. I had a little boy on the way. It was challenging trying to make a life for yourself and still have this personal goal. So we were sitting there and we looked at each other, and we burst out laughing.”
It’s hard to believe, but there has never been a major film on Jesse Owens. Eighty years after Owens’ monumental achievements at the Berlin Summer Games in 1936, the film, Race, will be coming to a theater near you.
During the Tokyo Summer Games fifty one years ago, Owens was asked to write a daily column for the Newark Star Ledger offering his memories from the Berlin Games, as well as his thoughts on the athletes and events of the 1964 Games. In his October 11, 1964 column, he wrote about a moment when he felt the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“Forget the competition. Run your own race. Don’t look at the people who’re watching you. Just do your best and be satisfied, win or lose. I always followed that creed too, and I think it helped me to become a better athlete and a better man. I always followed it – except once. That one I didn’t compete just as Jesse Owens, or just me as an American. That one day I ran as a Negro.”
Jesse Owens went on to write how he was feeling the pressure of representing his race, and fouled in his first two attempts at the long jump trials. Then a reporter asked Owens if he thought the German refs were purposely calling foul and how Hitler was reported to have bad mouthed Owens.
“Since that day, I’ve told thousands of boys that I just turned the other cheek – and that that’s what they should do when those things come up. But that day, that minute, I really couldn’t forget it. Not just as a Negro, but as a human being, it hurt me in that place you can’t put medicine.”
That’s when the athlete from Oakville, Alabama decided to draw a line in the sand…literally. In order to ensure that he didn’t foul, Owens marked a line a foot before the launching point, and easily won the trial, which helped Owens to continue his journey to gold and Olympic glory.
Below is the trailer for Race. This highly anticipated film is scheduled for release on February 19, 2016. When it does, don’t walk…race to your local theater.
The battle between Adidas and Puma is no coincidence – their cut-throat competition founded on a blood rivalry.
There once was a company called Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik, formed after World War I by Christoph Dassler in the town of Merzogenaurach in Germany. Christoph’s two sons Adolph and Rudolph became active in the family business. With the help of partner blacksmiths who made spikes for track shoes, they built shoes for runners, and famously got American Jesse Owens to wear their track shoes at the 1936 Olympic Games. Owens won four gold medals in those shoes, and the Dassler brothers got incredible insight into the power of branding.
But the family business would not last. As Andrew Jennings wrote in his book, The Lord of the Rings: Power, Money, and Drugs in the Modern Olympics, “…the two brothers had a dreadful argument. So dreadful was the dispute that Adolph and Rudolph decided never to speak to each other again. They parted company and ran rival shoe businesses in the town on either side of the Aurach River.”
Adolph, who was called Adi by family and friends, combined his nickname and the first syllable of his last name to form the brand “Adidas”. Rudolph chose a sleek and powerful big cat to represent his shoe company “Puma”. The company not only split in two in 1948, so did the town, as Richard Hoffer explains in his book on the Mexico City Games, Something in the Air.
“This created a civic tension in the town, as well, as scores of employees were now forced to take sides, some with Adolf’s newly formed Adidas company, others with Rudolf’s Puma. It was said that townspeople walked the streets with their heads down, the better to check out their neighbors’ footwear, and thus identify their family allegiance.”