Ohio State exhibition salutes Cleveland's Jesse Owens on the centennial of his birth

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Ohio State exhibition salutes Cleveland's Jesse Owens on the centennial of his birth

Written by Bill Livingston, The Plain Dealer on 23 December 2012.

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The old myths got it wrong. The shoe has no wings.

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Mercury, the messenger god of the Romans, needed assistance in the form of winged sandals in getting his dispatches out on time. Jesse Owens delivered his message of athletic excellence, racial equality and human dignity in the 1930s, most unforgettably at Adolf Hitler's Berlin Olympics in 1936, without steroids or radically advanced equipment.

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The shoe, now bronzed, on display at the Ohio State exhibition, "Faster, Higher, Stronger -- Jesse Owens: 100 years of Life and Legacy,'' was worn by Owens in Ann Arbor, Mich., on May 25, 1935, when the sprinter from Cleveland set three world records and tied another in one afternoon at the Big Ten Championships. His long jump mark would last for 25 years. When Owens landed, it was as if he left a footprint on eternity.

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Located in the William Oxley Thompson Library at 1811 Neil Ave. near Ohio Stadium, the exhibition honors the centennial of Owens' birth in 1913 in Alabama. It opened Jan. 9 and runs until May 5. Admission is free.

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Raised in Cleveland, Owens was a great high school athlete at East Tech. He became the greatest athlete ever to pass through the doors at Ohio State or any Big Ten institution. USA Track and Field's highest award is named in his honor. That ignorant voters from the Big Ten Network put Owens third on the list of the conference's all-time athletic icons is an outrage, as I have written (tinyurl.com/4zarwur).

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To OSU's credit, it does not hide the racial discrimination Owens faced as a Buckeye. Owens had no athletic scholarship, had to work while he was in college, had to live off-campus, and had to live and eat apart from the white members of the track team on trips. He entered Ohio State in 1933, after two African-American female students had been denied rooms in the Home Economics house.

At OSU, coach Larry Snyder quickened Owens' starts by teaching him to crouch tightly before the crack of the starter's pistol. Snyder also taught Owens to move his legs in the air on his jumps in an early form of the hitch kick. These refinements, along with Owens' ability to run smoothly and not "tie up" under pressure, made him track and field's greatest star.

A poster and painting of the medal ceremony for the long jump at the 1936 Olympics provide chilling commentary on the political climate in which Owens competed. The story of Germany's Ludwig "Luz" Long and Owens is one of the most famous in Olympic history, a stunning display of sportsmanship across racial and national lines, with the gesture heightened by the Nazis' hateful ideology of racial supremacy and by Owens' status as a subhuman in their eyes.

After an unusually nervous Owens fouled twice during qualifying, Long advised him to make his takeoff from slightly behind the board to avoid elimination with a third foul. That way, Owens would still be able to easily clear the qualifying mark. A calm Owens jumped four inches away from the board, qualified, and went on to win the gold medal.

At Olympic medal ceremonies, officials raise the three national flags of the medalists. The long jump silver medalist, Long, stands one step lower than Owens. He is giving the "Heil Hitler" salute to the Nazi swastika. Owens, on the top step, offers a military salute to the American flag. Behind the podium, a German official also gives the stiff-armed salute.

Tall, blond, the very model of Aryan racial ideals, a symbol of an ideology in which he did not believe, Long then walked arm-in-arm with Owens to the locker room. Owens later wrote that all his trophies could be melted down, and they still wouldn't be as precious as the "24-carat" friendship he had with Luz Long.

A poster at the exhibit, signed by members of the American team in Melbourne, Australia, at the 1956 Olympics, is dedicated to Owens. Two signatures that stand out are those of Al Oerter and Wilma Rudolph. Oerter won the first of his four straight discus gold medals in 1956. Four years before her triumphant performance in the sprints in Rome, Rudolph ran the opening leg of the women's 4x100-meter relay in Melbourne and won a bronze medal. Two of the greatest Olympians ever drew inspiration from Owens.

So did Ohio State senior Amanda Furrer. Her uniform from the 2012 Olympics, as a member of the American rifle team, stands near the signed 1956 poster. The point is that the connection still remains. They will always remember Jesse Owens at Ohio State - And in the World.

More on Jesse Owens –

The Columbus Dispatch’s Michael Arace commentary: Jesse Owens’ story deserves retelling - http://www.runohio.com/index.php/features/277-michael-arace-commentary-jesse-owens-story-deserves-retelling

PBS Distribution releasing “AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: JESSE OWENS - http://www.runohio.com/index.php/features/246--pbs-distribution-to-release-american-experience-jesse-owens

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