Weekly Sports Rapp: Jesse Owens

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Established October 31, 1996
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Last updated: 08/15/2012 4:17 PM
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Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: If Only I Could Have Watched Jesse
By Jeff Rapp

“That’s Michael Jordan!,” an overexcited 19-year-old yelled into his headset mic. “That’s Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins! Can we get them in the shot?”

Terry Jastrow, the hotshot director for ABC Sports, reacted quickly.

“Yes, yes, good,” he said during the historic broadcast of the 1984 Opening Ceremonies.

“Gene, stay on them. Good. Great shot. Stay with them. However, can we please remember that my voice is the only one that should be heard in this communication. Thank you.”

Oops. The 19-year-old was put in his place – but certainly not pulled down from his cloud.

I consider myself to be a great admirer of sport, and the height of athletic competition, in my mind, is the Olympic Games. I was an impressionable 14-year-old when the U.S. hockey team made a stunning and unforgettable run to the gold medal in Lake Placid.

Since my first ballgame, I have either tried to play sports, be around sports, analyze sports or cover sports. I even landed a couple menial jobs as a teenager pulling cable at Columbus Clippers and Ohio State basketball games.

So when I found out ABC was hiring for the broadcast of the 1984 Olympics in my hometown of Los Angeles, I just knew I had to land a spot at the Memorial Coliseum. Heck, I would have swept up popcorn if they asked. I would have worked for free, too.

But because I interviewed well over the phone and was willing to head out to L.A. in mid-July to be interviewed again, someone decided to go ahead and hire me. They labeled me a technician and paid me a nice wage. They included me in the protection of a union and put me up at the Westin Bonaventure hotel downtown.

And, to complete my incredible good fortune, they assigned me to all events at the Coliseum. Opening Ceremonies, Closing Ceremonies, all the track and field events. The works.

I can still remember calling my parents back in Columbus from my hotel room after watching the Opening Ceremonies in person. I’m sure I sounded like someone who had just witnessed an alien spacecraft. They were yawning. It was 3 a.m. Eastern time.

There was something magical about being in that venue on that night – and leave it to Hollywood to put on a giant spectacle and awe-inspiring party.

My job was labeled an ‘RF catcher,’ which meant I had to man the device on the roof of the press box that caught the radio frequency being beamed up from the field. Roone Arlidge, of course, wanted the broadcast to be precedent-setting, so ABC hired a machinist to rig up a couple of backpacks that connected to remote cameras.

That way, cameramen could venture all over the field and their shot would be usable – as long as the backpacker had the signal pointed up to me and I was lined up properly as well.

It was cutting-edge technology at the time, and it brought the audience much closer to the performers and the athletes.

So when I saw in my monitor that my cameraman was walking alongside parading Americans, right next to Jordan and Perkins, I felt the need to react. The world saw those two North Carolina All-Americans, and awaiting NBA stars, because I broke protocol like a pubescent girl at a Justin Bieber concert.

I’ve been dazzled by the Olympics ever since. I’ve been back in that Coliseum in my mind many times, especially when I want to see sports at their purest and most exhilarating.

I saw Carl Lewis win four gold medals, Edwin Moses at his untouchable best, the Zola Budd-Mary Decker dustup, Joan Benoit winning the women’s marathon, Sebastian Coe, Roger Kingdom, Al Joyner, Daley Thompson.

The list goes on and on.

Even some of those who didn’t quite reach the top podium were great theater. Jackie Joyner-Kersee (heptathlon) and Mike Conley (triple jump) – yes, the father of former Buckeye Mike Conley Jr. – came into stardom with silver medals.

I was hooked for life.

In 1988, I watched Ohio native, and OSU graduate, Butch Reynolds take on Ben Johnson of Canada in Seoul. In 1992, it was the Dream Team in Barcelona. In 1996, Kerri Strug in Atlanta. Every four years, I’m smitten with the Olympics and allow myself the occasional stroll down the memory path to the greatest summer of my life.

Part of the allure is the historic significance. Yes, records are made to be broken, but outstanding, world-shaking Olympic performances live forever.

Which takes me to Jesse Owens.

Jesse Owens Statue at Jesse Owens Stadium on the Ohio State Campus
Photo by Jim Davidson
Statue of Jesse Owens at Ohio State

I knew all about Owens’ accomplishments at Ohio State and, like everyone, was well aware of the history he made in Berlin at the 1936 Games. But when I was asked by the Big Ten Network to put Owens’ career in perspective on camera, I failed.

Like the Bill Paxton character in “Titanic,” I was aware of the basic achievement but I hadn’t really let the magnitude of the event sink in. I hadn’t allowed it to permeate my consciousness.

What Owens did was beyond remarkable, not because he could run fast, jump far or even perform at his best when the stakes were the highest. Others have done that and received their just plaudits. What Owens did transcends all of that because of his uncanny ability to toe the line while the world judged him and his African-American descent.

What Owens did as a 22-year-old on a global stage was breathtaking. On Aug. 3, he smoked the field in the 100 meters. The next day, he topped them all on the long jump. The next, same thing in the 200. Owens and teammate Ralph Metcalfe grudgingly participated in the 4 x 100 relay on Aug. 9 after the coaches decided to add them to the field in place of two Jewish sprinters, given the highly political theme of the Olympiad.

Monument to the spirit of Jesse Owens on Ohio State campus at Jesse Owens Stadium
Photo by Jim Davidson
Jesse Owens footprints at OSU campus

I was watching a PBS documentary on Owens recently and saw footage I had never seen before, including accounts of the Games from actual participants. I saw how German long jumper Luz Long – despite Adolph Hitler’s absolute insistence that so-called Aryan supremacy be on display at all times – took a true liking to Owens and even encouraged him during qualifying jumps to play it safe so he could advance to the finals.

After Owens won, the two walked off the field arm-in-arm. It was one of the truly great, and unscripted, moments of sportsmanship in history.

“Why is this guy’s life not a full feature film?,” I asked my wife. It has every element of a great sports movie, maybe the best ever, if done well. The citywide Nazi propaganda and edge-of-your-seat anticipation of the crowd jammed into Berlin Olympic Stadium could be recaptured with CGI.

The bite-your-lip approach of Owens, who even defended a snub by Hitler, could be expressed by a talented young actor. The bias, the slurs, the intimidation and eventual acceptance also could be portrayed and allow many like myself to truly soak in what Owens faced – and what he achieved.

They have a plaque to honor this guy at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, where he set three world records and tied a fourth in the span of 45 minutes during the Big Ten (then Western Conference) championships.

It’s possible they may do the same for Michael Phelps, a Michigan alum, on Ohio State’s campus some day, but I doubt it.

Phelps is the greatest swimmer anyone has ever seen, and the poster boy for the Beijing and London Olympics. He deserves to be trumpeted forever as one of the most accomplished American athletes of all time. His record 22 medals may always be the benchmark for the Games.

The family of Jesse Owens at the dedication of his statue at Jesse Owens Stadium on the Ohio State Campus.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Jesse Owens Family at statue dedication

But Jesse Owens is our greatest American Olympian, and I’m not sure it is even close.

I saw Carl Lewis astonish the world in person. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful performances, great games and sports accomplishments since. I’ve lived a little.

Today, I drove by the building where I used to work in 1984. The store long has been shut down and another one is in its place. I also drove by my old family home on the far east side of Columbus. I couldn’t believe how different it looked. I peered into the rearview mirror and saw a middle-aged man with graying temples and much less hair on top, and I wondered where that wide-eyed kid went.

It would be easy to long for 1984 – a Van Halen tape – yes, tape – playing in the car, no worries, no pudgy midsection, and an unquenchable thirst for fun and sports nirvana. But if I could go back and witness a sporting event and breathe in the significance of the moment, it would be in, of all places, Nazi Germany. To see a young black man make the world, and even a power-crazed dictator, marvel at his talents and grace.

Maybe they’d let me stand on top of the press box somewhere – or sweep up the popcorn.

*This is the second installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.

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