News10 May 2024

‘This is about history’ – Owens’ granddaughter unveils Heritage Plaque to mark his day of days


Kevin Sullivan, Marlene Dortch and Rosalind Joseph with the World Athletics Heritage Plaque honouring Jesse Owens (© Tran Longmoore / World Athletics Heritage)

The World Athletics Heritage Plaque honouring Jesse Owens’ Day of Days at Ferry Field was unveiled by Owens’ granddaughter Marlene Dortch and Michigan’s Athletic Director Warde Manuel on Thursday (9) the day before the University of Michigan hosts the latest version of the Big 10 Championships.

On 25 May 1935, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, Owens set four world records – it was six records with their metric equivalents – in a 45-minute span; an afternoon of individual success which remains unsurpassed in the history of world sport let alone track and field athletics.

“I came here to the track yesterday and I saw some young girls practicing and that just really spoke to me, because generations later, there are young people who are on this field who can see this and be inspired,” said Dortch. “That would mean the world to him, because what he really wanted to do was inspire young people and make it a better world.”

“This goes beyond the rivalry (between Michigan and Ohio State),” added Manuel. “That's what I want people to understand. This is about history. It's about what Jesse Owens did, not only in the Big 10 but for our country.

“I don’t know if you remember around the Olympics what was going on back then when he set these world records and then went to the Olympics – all the vitriol and everything that was going on in the world. He ran for America and so, there is no Ohio State-Michigan rivalry… This is about celebrating the great man that did a service for this country that will always forever be remembered.”

Michigan head coach Kevin Sullivan said: “The plaque is dedicated to his athletics achievements on this day in 1935. It’s really bigger than that and I think that Jesse Owens the man was bigger than Jesse Owens the athlete.”

Ohio State head coach Rosalind Joseph added: “We appreciate World Athletics and the University of Michigan for honouring not only a great in our programme but a great in the sport of track and field.

“We are appreciative that everyone here can recognise that this is someone who has left a legacy beyond the rivalry and really what it means to be able to promote our sport, promote what Jesse Owens has done for the sport of track and field and continue to live out that legacy.”

The World Athletics Heritage Plaque is a location-based recognition, awarded for an outstanding contribution to the worldwide history and development of the sport of track and field athletics and of out-of-stadia athletics disciplines such as cross country, mountain, road, trail and ultra-running, and race walking.

‘The greatest individual athlete of all time’

On 25 May 1935, the stands at Ferry Field on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus thronged with fans. Most had come on that fair, clear day to see one man, Jesse Owens, compete for the Ohio State team at the Western Conference Championships, better known as the Big 10.

At the time, athletics got plenty of play in US newspapers, so many of the audience were familiar with the 21-year-old’s credentials. Three times he had already tied the world record in the 100 yards at 9.4, but none of them met the requirements for official recognition. One of those dashes came while Owens – born in Alabama the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave – competed as a schoolboy at Cleveland’s East Tech High School.

The fans likely also knew that the weekend before, Owens had run 220-yards – contested on a straight track, as usual in the US in those days – in 20.7, missing by a tenth the accepted world record. They knew that over the winter he had broken the world indoor best in the long jump with his 7.85m, and that a few weeks before at the Drake Relays, his leap of 7.97m had missed Chuhei Nambu’s 1931 world record by a mere centimetre.

If that weren’t enough to pack the stands, the local newspaper in its preview of the meet called Owens “the greatest individual athlete of all time” and reported on head timer Phil Diamond’s insistence on the use of a wind gauge, as he said all of the world records in Owens’ four scheduled events were “in grave danger”.

What they didn’t know was that just five days before the competition, Owens had injured his back roughhousing with friends. Every effort gave him a jolt of pain.

In the qualifying rounds on Friday, Owens appeared comfortable leading the field with efforts of 9.7, 21.4 and 7.65m. In the 220-yard low hurdles, an event he said he barely practiced, he didn’t even produce the fastest time.

Jesse Owens in action in the long jump

Jesse Owens in action in the long jump (© AFP / Getty Images)

On Saturday, temperatures approached 20C and the winds stayed calm. Owens dug his starting holes in the track with a trowel while some of his competitors used new starting blocks. The gun for the 100 yards fired at 15:15. Behind at the start, Owens quickly righted that and steamed across the line some five meters clear of his pursuers. His 9.4 came with a 1.55m/s wind, tying the record that was held by fellow US sprinter Frank Wycoff and South Africa’s Danie Joubert.

Ten minutes later, at 15:25, Owens took his first and only effort in the long jump, inspired by a handkerchief someone had put at the world record distance. He achieved tremendous height on the leap and flew beyond the mark, landing at 8.13m; the wind a mere 1.5m/s. It was to be his longest-lived world record, lasting until Ralph Boston broke it in 1960.

A 20-minute rest brought him to the starting line of the 220 yards. With a 0.3m/s wind at his back, he again turned back a field of the toughest collegiate sprinters, his 20.3 effectively demolishing the old record of 20.6 that Roland Locke of the United States had set nine years earlier. Being 1.17m longer than the standard 200m distance, the race also counted as a 200m record.

‘I’ll never have another day like this in my life’

Owens then conferred with his coach, Larry Snyder, who could see the pain that Owens was in. He had decided he would pull him out of the hurdles, telling his protégé that he probably had no chance at a record. Owens, however, intuitively grasped the magic of the moment. He stepped closer to Snyder and said so no one else could hear: “I’ll never have another day like this in my life.”

Snyder relented, and Owens stood at the starting line of the 220-yard low hurdles. He silenced the pain he felt and focused only on the finish. The breeze was just 0.45m/s. Again, he finished several metres ahead, his 22.6 slashing Norman Paul’s world record by 0.4.

For all of his efforts, Owens had to watch the host school collect the winning team trophy, as Ohio State fell just short in the final points tally.

Yet his ‘day of days’ set the stage for his remarkable four-gold medal performance at the Berlin Olympics the next summer, where the grandson of a slave showed the world the lie of the white supremacy at the heart of the Nazi regime.

Jeff Hollobaugh for World Athletics Heritage

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