In this day and age of computers, over-the-top media coverage, and steroid-driven statistics, people tend to forget their roots and why the Olympics at one time was the world's greatest athletic competition.
I understand our generation was not around at the time, but flashback with me to the year 1936. The world was at war and on the brink of destruction.
America's economy was almost penniless, and the Nazi Party was beginning its rise to power. Max Schmelling and Joe Louis engaged in one of the classic bouts in boxing history at Yankee Stadium, with Schemelling pulling off the victory.
But through all of that, the one moment that people will most remember is Jesse Owens' culture-changing performance at that year's Summer Olympics in, of all places, Berlin, Germany.
Adolph Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party, used the Olympics to further promote his radical view of racial supremacy. Still, the party removed signs stating "Jews not wanted" and similar slogans from the city's main tourist attractions. In an attempt to "clean up" Berlin, the German Ministry of Inferior authorized the chief of police to arrest all Gypsies and keep them in a "special camp."
Nazi officials ordered that foreign visitors should not be subjected to the criminal strictures of anti-homosexual laws. As a result, many Jews and Gypsies were forbidden from competing.
Owens' participation in the Olympics was controversial due to his race. Segregation and discrimination against blacks were the norm in much of the United States before the Civil Rights movement began in the 1960s.
However, once in Berlin, he was able to freely use public transportation and enter bars and other public facilities without the difficulty he would face as a black man in the United States.
In typical fashion, Hitler refused to acknowledge his many accomplishments and even refused to shake his hand. In fact, Hitler did not congratulate any athlete (including those competing for Germany) after the first day, in accordance with IOC guidelines that he should maintain Olympic neutrality.
Owens' Olympic performance is legendary in itself. He won four gold medals in four of the toughest track and field events: 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay, and the long jump. He was cheered enthusiastically by 110,000 people in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, and later ordinary Germans sought his autograph when they saw him in the streets.
When he returned home he was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites.
Though we are singing the praises of Michael Phelps and his much-deserved accomplishments, the debate of whether he is the greatest of all time will carry on for years. But to know who is the most important Olympian of all time, many factors have to be considered including: overall accomplishment, cultural backdrop, and impact on future generations.
I was not alive to watch or appreciate Mr. Owens' accomplishments, but as an African-American living in the 21st century, I am honored to know he took that risk and was willing to take the abuse that came along with it.