'Race': Jesse Owens, Just One Sporting Superstar Who Became Political

Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The new biopic sports drama 'Race', tells the thrilling story of African-American athlete Jesse Owens, and how he overcame racial discrimination both on and off the track to become an Olympian representing the US. That meant he went to Berlin in 1936, where he won four gold medals and defied Adolf Hitler's plans to stage a sporting showcase for the supremacy of the Aryan race.

However, Jesse Owens wasn't the only star to use his/her sporting skills to make a political statement. Here are just a few other names whose actions transcended their chosen arena...

In 1906, Irishman Pete O’Connor travelled to Athens as an Irish Olympic athlete in what were known as the Intercalated Olympic Games. As Ireland was not an independent nation at the time, however, he and his other fellow countrymen were forced to represent Great Britain, which in turn caused huge frustration. So much so, that following his victory in the Hop, Step and Jump competition, he climbed the Olympic flagpole and waved an Irish flag in front of the crowd. It was a pioneering moment in Irish sporting history and one that felt to many like a rebirth of a nation. To add to this radical moment, his world record in long jump remained unbeaten for many decades.
On May 26, 2013, Robbie Rodgers, an American football player, after briefly retiring and coming out as gay upon leaving the Premiere League side Leeds, went on to sign for the LA Galaxy, thus becoming the first openly gay man to compete in a top North American professional sports league. He played his first match for the east coast side which they went on to win 4-0 against the Seattle Sounders. It was a win that went on to symbolise a step forward in the eradication of homophobia in the sport.
One of the most celebrated boxers in history, his two fights against Max Schmeling remain among the sport's most talked about bouts. The first Schmeling won, the second Lewis came out the victor. More than just a sporting occasion, these two fights embodied the broader political and social conflict of the times. Louis became a focal point for African-American pride in the 1930s. His performance in front of the world was seen as a fight between fascism and democracy and elevated his status as the first true widely-known African-American national hero in the United States.
In 1973 women’s tennis star Billie Jean King faced off against Bobby Riggs in an exhibition match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes”. Riggs, who was 55 years old at the time, was a former Wimbledon champion. He believed he could beat any woman player in the game, throwing down the gauntlet to all the female players in the sport. King eventually took him up on this challenge on September 30th of that year. Riggs made a slew of misogynistic comments in the lead up to the match, however, by saying on one occasion that “the best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot”. However King ended up destroying him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 before a sold-out crowd at the 30,000 seater at Houston Astrodome. It was the largest crowd to watch a tennis match in history. King’s victory is credited with kick -starting a surge of interest in women’s sports and with helping to further close the gender gap.
In 1948, at the tender age of 28, Jackie Robinson became the first ever African-American player in Major League Baseball when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. In a sport that had been segregated for more than 50 years, this was a crucial moment in breaking the colour barriers of the countries sporting institutions. On the anniversary of this event, in April 15, 1997, his career was honoured and his uniform number, 42, was retired from Major League Baseball by Commissioner Bud Selig in a ceremony attended by over 50,000 fans at New York City’s Metz Shea Stadium. His was the first-ever baseball number retired by all teams in the league as a sign of respect and admiration.
At the Mexico Olympics of 1968, having won the 200-metre gold and bronze medals, Smith and his fellow American team mate John Carlos made history by staging a silent protest against racial discrimination. They stood with their heads bowed and their black-gloved hands raised as the American National Anthem played during the victory ceremony. It was a demonstration against the continuing racial discrimination of black people in the United States, and though they were faced with a huge amount of media hostility and their act widely seen in the US as an abhorrence, it was later recognised as a moment of courage and hailed as ground-breaking for the social advancement of African Americans.
Jesse Owens was born on 12 September 1913 in Oakville, Alabama. In 1936 he won four gold medals at the Olympic Games in Berlin and broke records that weren’t equalled or surpassed for many years. Also known as "The Buckeye Bullet", Owens was considered an instrumental figure in fighting the cause for African-American equality at a time when racism was rife not just in North America but across the world. He also single-handedly shattered Hitler’s plan to showcase his vision of the supremacy of the Aryan race.

'Race' is released by Altitude films on 3 June.


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