Jesse Owens is an American hero. History remembers him as a soaring figure who dispelled Adolf Hitler’s ideology of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin. His main event was track and field; hence, the film’s title of “Race” (2016), an allusion to the man’s legacy on account of the sport and his ethnicity. As expected of a bio-pic on a personage of African-American heritage set in the Jim Crow era, the film depicts hurdles in a segregationist society that Owens (Stephan James) pushes himself to rise above. There’s the snubs of fellow athletes when he’s a student at Ohio State University and later, when he’s hailed champion, the White House’s refusal to allow him entrance through the front door so that he could attend a dinner in his honor.
The incident that causes him the most anguish, however, comes from his own community. Many blacks accuse him of betraying them for accepting the Olympic committee’s invitation to compete in a country blatant in its persecution of Jews and people of color. Jesse Owens’s mission is a titanic one. He must snag the gold. Anything less, silver or bronze, would be failure; only first place will make a statement about the inequity of discrimination.
The Olympics brim with stories of trail blazers. In exceptional cases, a participant gains acclaim despite zero medal victory. Nobody is a loser. If Jesse Owens is at one end of the spectrum, he a born thoroughbred, then at the other end is British ski jumper Eddie Edwards. Far sighted, physically heavy, and his skills deficient, Edwards was the proverbial dark horse relentless in his training, every faulty landing and every jeer never clouding his focus. He made it to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Although he came in last, his pertinacity was so inspirational that at the closing ceremony, the president of the organizing committee singled him out amid the horde of gold, silver, and bronze: “You have broken world records and you have established personal bests. Some of you have even soared like an eagle.” And so was coined Edwards’s nickname of Eddie the Eagle, which also serves as the title to the ski jumper’s own 2016 bio-pic.
Whether political or personal, sportspeople have something to say. At every Olympics, a star emerges to capture our imagination. Scottish runner Eric Liddell, who regarded his speed as a gift from God rather than an expedient for the gold, was altruism personified in the 1924 games held in Paris (Liddell later became a missionary in China), and in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci earned the perfect score of ten in the uneven bars competition – the first time in Olympics history for a ten to be given and the first of the seven tens she would amass at the event – in effect rousing admiration and affection in the West for this 14-year-old child of the Eastern Block.
However, Owens is unique among the greats. In spite of equality laws executed in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the ills of racism, sexism and homophobia still thrive today. Strong evidence is in the continued existence of the Ku Klux Klan, which endorsed Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, he the president-elect who demonizes Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists, is himself a purported rapist, and pledges to abolish same sex marriage. White supremacists threatened to assassinate Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had she won as well as to murder blacks. Now as in then, Jesse Owens is a symbol of disenfranchised empowerment. We who are oppressed must fight to protect our standing as citizens of the world, not with weapons as much as with faith in our cause and the will such faith imbues, and in so doing, we will race to the finish line, our arms raised to the heavens in triumph.
Triumph of the will is not just idealistic blather. This is a conviction that encapsulates the spirit of the Olympics. One of the 20th century’s most iconic films is testimony to this – “Olympia,” a project the Third Reich commissioned to memorialize the 1936 games. Although, as “Race” depicts, the film’s ulterior motive was to validate Aryan supremacy, director Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) does something that the German government considers questionable, if not an affront. She includes athletes of all races. Owens, especially, captivates Riefenstahl, his record breaking feats impossible to ignore, and she dedicates copious footage to him. The director isn’t the only German in amazement of the African-American. In a gesture of sportsmanship, German runner Luz Long (David Kross) visits Owens in his room the night before they are to compete. Owens anticipates a disgruntled foe. Instead, he meets a fellow human who discloses his disgust for the Nazis and assures Owens his comradeship.
Allies exist in unlikely people, in unlikely places. As long as what we advocate upholds respect and dignity, we are not alone. I will never forget my sister’s 26th birthday. She was earning her master’s at Harvard University, while I was an undergrad at Tufts University in the neighboring town of Medford. After a celebratory dinner, I joined my sister and her friends to a restaurant bar, and though I was 21, I didn’t have a valid ID. I presented my credit card to the waitress, thinking that financial means would indicate a relative maturity of age. She was a Caucasian woman in a tank top and hair cut short, with brisk movements and a blue collar Boston accent that elongated the “a” as “ahh.” Since she denied the credit card, I gave her dagger eyes, at which she responded likewise, averted her head, and huffed. With every valid ID the present company handed her, she took each with a jerk from the holder and returned with a flick of her wrist. We decided to leave. On the way out, I told the waitress she was rude. In my youthful impertinence, I even uttered that she was a bitch. “Get out of here, chink,” she said.
I would have accepted had the waitress called me an asshole. The obscenity would have been an attack on my attitude. No. “Racist,” I said. Andy, a Filipino such as I, pulled me by the arm to the door; the confrontation was futile. “They’ll see,” my sister said once we were outside, they a reference to the waitress and all like her who hate because of skin color. “We’ll make successes of ourselves.” My sister and her friends today build homes and commercial compounds, and I persist on my calling as a writer, having penned one novel thus far. (http://www.rafsy.com/art-of-storytelling/the-reward-of-being-an-author-it-isnt-money/) We didn’t succeed on our own. Our ammunition: the opportunities with which our education gifted us. I myself can mention a few motivational words from teachers, but none as encouraging as those from Alison Lurie, the Pulitzer Prize author who mentored me at the Cornell writing program, when a manuscript I had completed was accumulating rejections. I had not foreseen Lurie and Cornell University to be in my future, but through diligence and faith in my calling, both were:
Please don’t give up. You are a gifted writer, and have important things to say. Remember that many, even famous writers, were rejected many times by stupid editors.
Please don’t give up. Nobody ever says that unless he or she means it. How this plea pertains to us all in these uncertain times. Donald Trump is the 45th president of the United States of America. In defiance and fear, people against him are talking of migrating to another country. Abandoning ship is a reflex action. As President Barack Obama stated in his post-election speech, the path of politics has never been linear; it’s a zigzag with every blockade to progress an incentive to unite us so that we break through and march forward mightier than before. This is what impresses me about America. When summoned to act in the name of liberty and justice for all, Americans produce wonders as big as the nation itself. The Civil Rights Movement, the Environmental Movement, The Women’s Rights Movement, The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement… all these movements happened here, their impact manifest in many parts of the globe. Rather than quit as the going gets tough, we Americans get even tougher. We haven’t reached the finish line yet. Lord knows how many decades or centuries more we need to trudge. Nevertheless, we will.
Hence, Jesse Owens and the Olympics. The games are a microcosm of the world, a simulacra of life. Not everything is in our favor. Life is a melange of rights and wrongs, privileges and injustices. To surmount the odds seems impossible, until a hero like Owens defies gravity to make us believe otherwise. Owens was one man. Imagine the heights ascended if we each could muster his will to join forces towards a unanimous mission.