Jesse Owens

What is an amateur today?

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.

Carl Lewis, no slouch himself in track and field, reflected on the amazing athletic accomplishments of Owens:

“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.”

Jesse Owens in Tokyo_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Jesse Owens in Tokyo_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

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.

Super Bowl XLI was memorable for its football. It was the first time ever two African American coaches faced off against one another. The game started with a touchdown on its first play, a kick-off return TD. Peyton Manning was named MVP. And the Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears 29-17.

But today, what many will recall lovingly from that Super Bowl on February 4, 2007, was the electrifying performance by the artist, Prince. As New York Times writer, Kelefa Sanneh, wrote of the 12-minute performance, “His performance last night at Super Bowl XLI will surely go down as one of the most thrilling halftime shows ever; certainly the most unpredictable, and perhaps the best.”

Watch this short documentary produced by the NFL on Prince’s performance and the concerns leading up to it. There had never been a Super Bowl in the rain. Rain is fine for the football players, but it was a worry for the producers of the half-time show. As one said, “We were told ‘It’s never rained in a super bowl in 40 years. Don’t worry about it.’ We were in a booth at the top of the stadium. The rain is pouring into the booth. It was so windy and rainy we couldn’t even see.”Prince performing in the rain at Super Bowl XLI


Another person on the production team said this. “I was must panicked. Prince was using four separate live electric guitars. The stage was made of a very slick tile, which when it got wet, was even more slippery. He had two beautiful dancers with him – The Twinz. They were wearing, I think eight-inch heels. And I was thinking, ‘what’s going to happen now?”

But apparently, the unexpected rain storm did not faze Prince. As the production designer of the half-time show recalled in a conversation that was had with Prince before the show, “‘I want you to know it’s raining.’ And Prince said, ‘Yes, it’s raining.’ ‘And are you OK?’ And Prince is like, ‘Can you make it rain harder?’ And I was like, ‘right on!'”

Sanneh thought that “the heavy rain made the smoke and lights seem mysterious, instead of merely ridiculous.” Alan Light, who wrote a biography of Prince called “Let’s Go Crazy” said in the documentary, “It felt spontaneous. He turned the weather to his dramatic advantage. It was almost like a special effect. He could totally lean in to that, and make it seem like, ‘Sure it’s raining. I would have wanted it to rain.’ Like, ‘I ordered that.'”

John Pareles, the Senior Music Critic of the NY Times, marveled at Prince’s song choice and performance in the documentary. “Prince’s set is so wild. He does other people’s songs. He’s not promoting himself. He’s just making music. It’s profound. It’s loud. It’s funky. It’s one performer, shaking the entire world.”

Prince’s final song of the set was his anthem, Purple Rain, one of my favorite songs. As one of the producers of the half-time show said in the NFL documentary, “When he did do Purple Rain, things worked magically, and there’s nothing you can say except ‘thank you’.”

Prince performing in the rain at Super Bowl XLI_2