Sunday, April 10, 2011

Jesse Owens Memorial Park

Ever since I became a more serious runner (all things relative, people) I've taken an interest in the sport and our community as a whole. I'll never be one to spout significant names, dates and times off the cuff, but I do enjoy learning about the history of running and the present day ongoings. The legend of Phidippides, Steve Prefontaine in Munich, the Duel in the Sun, the Wanamaker Mile - these are some of the things I've studied up on that provide a foundation for what I do, as well as inspiration to do more. So, when on a recent road trip I had the opportunity to visit the Jesse Owens Memorial Park in Oakville, AL, I knew I had to make time.

Plaque at the base of
the replica 1936 Olympic
torch. Click to enlarge.
Before going I did some homework by reading over the museum's web site. Chock full of information, I found it to be an excellent resource. Like most people, I knew Jesse Owens was one of our country's greatest Olympians. I was also aware he had won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics and consequently embarrassed Adolph Hiltler. But but beyond this I was pretty ignorant. After only a few minutes on the site I found out about his humble upbringing and how blessed he was to survive the first six years of his life. I also learned how dominant an athlete he was in college. With so much information available online I resolved to find something during my visit that could only be obtained by going there.

I turned into the park and drove past the small visitor's center up a long drive to the museum. As I approached the doors I was disappointed to see it was closed. Though the posted hours suggested it should have been open a couple of hours by then, the lights were out and the doors were locked. I figured I would at least make the best of things and look around the exterior, but before I could get around the corner a car pulled up and a woman got out. She welcomed me to the museum and then proceeded to open it up just for me. Tony, I quickly learned, was a helpful and friendly tour guide extraordinaire, answering any question I could put to her and volunteering information not readily or otherwise available through the displays.

Replica Owens' family home.
After she turned on all the lights I was invited in and able to walk around the museum. The first thing I found that surprised me was that Jesse seemed to reach his athletic stride early in life. He was still in high school in 1933 when he tied the world record for the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds. Two years later at Ohio State University the Buckeye Bullet, as he was known, accomplished the exact same feat at the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I wondered if he ran faster in the Olympics, but learned that distance wasn't raced internationally. Instead, he competed in the 100-meter sprint, making it difficult to draw comparisons.

As I continued my tour I took in some of the displays which contained various memorabilia. There were replicas of the Adidas track shoes and outfit he wore at the Olympics, as well as donated items, such as daily programs and pins. I noted there weren't any of the medals he earned on display, and asked Tony if I'd missed them. "No," she said. "They were stolen. Turned up missing in 1962." How disappointing.

Long Jump Pit
After watching a couple of short films I asked Tony if I could exit through the side doors to the attractions outside. Rather than turn me loose she unlocked the doors and proceeded to show me around, offering up tidbits of information you can only obtain in person. She took me out to the replica of the Owens' home, which I could hardly believe housed 12 people. We also went by the long jump pit (she'd never seen anyone jump farther than 16') and the replica Olympic torch, which is lit only on special occasions. The final stop was the centerpiece of the park, an inspirational bronze statue that portrays Jesse breaking through the Olympic rings. A symbolic and fitting representation of the many barriers he broke during his lifetime.

Jesse Owens Bronze Statue
Before I left Tony imparted one last item of knowledge that surprised me a bit. This memorial park and museum, located in the small town where he lived until just the age of nine, is the only one of its kind. That there isn't a similar tribute in Cleveland, where in high school he got his track and field start and tied two world records, seems strange.  And that there is no learning center at Ohio State University, where he won a record eight individual NCAA championships and broke three world records, I find baffling. So, if you want to see for yourself why Jesse Owens was and is one of the greatest athletes of all time, you're going to have to travel Alabama. It's worth the trip and I recommend it.


  1. Thanks for sharing the details of your fascinating tour, Drew. I'm embarrassed that you have to go to Alabama to learn more about one of the greatest Ohioans (and, more significantly, a Clevelander) ever.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Greg. Should you ever decide to pay homage in person, be sure to look me up. I'm sure Tony would understand - she's originally from Ohio, too. :)