As a kid, Marlene Hemphill Dortch watched the grainy, black-and-white film footage from the 1936 Berlin Olympics in amazement, wondering how her grandfather was so much faster than everyone else.
There was Jesse Owens, darting down the track to win the 100-meter title, then smiling and waving at the cheering German crowd.
Now when she views that vintage footage, the 45-year-old Dortch does so in a different light, wondering how her grandfather prospered under such pressure.
In a stadium built by Adolf Hitler as a celebration of the Third Reich, Owens stole the show in ’36 and made a mockery of Nazi claims of Aryan supremacy. He became the first American track athlete to win four gold medals at one Olympics.
“He was in his element,” Dortch said. “He was so happy in that stadium.”
Nearly 73 years later, Berlin is about to be the scene of another major international track meet, this time the world championships taking place Aug. 15-23 at Olympic Stadium — the site of Owens’ achievements.
Dortch will be there as USA Track and Field, along with the IAAF and the Berlin Organizing Committee, pays tribute to Owens, who died in 1980 of lung cancer. The U.S. squad plans to wear a uniform that sports Owens’ initials.
The organizations also will honor German long jump great Luz Long, who befriended Owens at the Berlin Games. Dortch and Long’s son, Kai, will present the long jump medals on Aug. 22.
“I’m anticipating being overcome with emotion,” Dortch said, who lives in Fort Washington, Md.
Her mom knows the feeling. When Gloria Owens Hemphill — the oldest of Owens’ three daughters — traveled to Berlin for a ceremony nearly two decades ago and walked into the vacant stadium, she felt chills as she gazed around.
“It was like going back in time,” said Hemphill, of Chicago. “I’ve seen the films, seen them over and over again. Being in that stadium was an out-of-body experience. It’s like you can hear the people cheering for my dad.”
Owens was a beloved figure in Berlin. Throughout his life, he received a steady stream of letters from German school kids, eager to correspond with him.
Soon after his death at age 66, the city even renamed a street that runs in front of the stadium in his honor.
“They loved Jesse, hounded him wherever he went in a friendly way,” said David Wallechinsky, an author and Olympic historian.
Wallechinsky thinks Owens was so embraced in ’36 as a form of rebellion.
The Nazis were trying to portray African-Americans as inferior, even ridiculing the U.S. for bringing in “black auxiliaries.”
But Owens dazzled the capacity crowds with his speed, then charmed them with his grace.
“The German government tried to make him into a negative symbol and the German people saw otherwise,” Wallechinsky explained.
Long was among them. After Owens fouled on his first two attempts in long jump qualifying, he was in danger of being eliminated. Long gave him a bit of advice, telling Owens to move back a little and take off well before the board.
The tip worked, Owens won gold, Long settled for silver and a friendship was formed.
“This is one of the big moments in Olympic history,” Wallechinsky said. “The Nazis are belittling black athletes, and their star not only helps by giving him advice, but makes a point of talking to him and being photographed.”
Sports lore has it that Hitler snubbed Owens by leaving the stands after he won gold, but Wallechinsky said that’s a myth.
“Hitler had been congratulating the German winners and the IOC said, ’You can’t do that. If you’re going to do that in the stadium, you have to do it for everybody,”’ Wallechinsky said.
His daughter said Owens never brought up Hitler with her.
“He went there to run for his country and to win. That’s what he did. Nothing else bothered him,” Hemphill said. “He was a champion who made everyone feel like a champion.”
That was the impression that came through to a 9-year-old boy who was so enamored with Owens that he asked to have his photo taken with him. That kid grew up to be Carl Lewis, who captured nine Olympic gold medals in his career.
“The reason we still talk about his name is because he was relevant,” Lewis said. “He became bigger than that story, instead of the story being bigger than him. He elevated that story even more so.”
Yet Owens didn’t constantly regale his family with Olympic tales. He spent his life traveling around the world, giving motivational speeches or doing anything else he could to make a living — even stunts like racing against horses.
There were no endorsement deals waiting for him when he returned from Berlin, sometimes just a cold shoulder in a segregated America.
“The reality is that (Berlin) was no more hostile than it was in Alabama (around that time),” said Lewis, who like Owens was born in Alabama. “People were yelling at him, ’We want our Germans to win.’ Then he came home and had to go up through a back elevator for his own (celebration) party. Every day he woke up he had to deal with this difficulty. That’s what I admire … He rose above all that.”
When Owens was home in Chicago — and later in Phoenix — he was simply dad to his three daughters and then grandpa to his five grandkids. His passions included swimming and watching Westerns.
Dortch only gradually learned of her grandfather’s legacy. She used to duck into his trophy room and hold his gold medal or glance at pictures and plaques, trying to figure out where they were from.
Every so often, Owens would invite over friends like Olympic champions Harrison Dillard and Ralph Metcalfe, just to stroll down memory lane. When they did, Dortch would sit on the stairs, craning her neck to eavesdrop on their stories.
“He was a larger than life figure to us,” Dortch said. “He did not let any outside forces change who he was and what he was going to do. That’s the way he lived his life. That’s the lesson I learned from him.”