Recently Michael Phelps swam his way to a record number of gold medals by one person at a single Olympics. In doing so, there are many people who are ready to crown him "The Greatest Olympian Ever." With all due respect to Mr. Phelps and his accomplishments in Beijing, the greatest feat by the greatest Olympian ever happened 72 years ago in Berlin.
Jesse Owens didn't travel by plane to the 1936 Olympics. He took a steamship, the USS Manhattan, to Germany, with other members of the United States delegation. Except unlike most of his American counterparts, he was relegated to third class with the few other African-American athletes on the team.
Upon arrival in Berlin, Owens actually faced less discrimination than he did back home in the United States. He was able to travel freely around the city, use public transportation, and visit local dining establishments as he pleased. The fact remained, however, that he was looked down upon by the media, government, and the citizens of the host country. The German media referred to Owens and other African-American athletes as "black auxiliaries," and criticized the United States for using them to win track and field events. Additionally, Adolph Hitler, the German Chancellor, had much of the German population convinced of Aryan superiority in all aspects, including athletics. The 1936 Olympics was the stage upon which he planned to prove that superiority.
Without considering the back story, Owens' actual athletic accomplishments in Berlin would still be just as impressive as Phelps' accomplishments in Beijing. Owens won four gold medals, setting three records. But when considering what Owens faced while achieving those feats, it puts him above and beyond Phelps and all others.
Some may argue that Phelps won eight gold medals and Owens "only" won four, and that's how the discussion should begin and end. But when looking at Phelps we must remember that he participates in a sport in which it is much easier to compete in multiple events at a very high level. Before Phelps came along, it wasn't completely unheard of for swimmers to compete in five or six events and win medals in all of them. A number of the different strokes and distances are similar enough to each other that it can be done. And there are also a number of relays in which a person who specializies in one or two strokes can also compete. A lot of the most decorated Olympic athletes of all-time are swimmers, and the sport has more Olympians with five or more all-time medals than any other, including sports normally contested in the Winter Games. What's clear is that the door has always been open for a swimmer to come along and dominate. Michael Phelps has simply stepped through that door. In doing so, Phelps, like Mark Spitz before him, has all but answered the question about who's the greatest swimmer ever.
Unlike swimming, the opportunity to compete at a high level for large amounts of medals does not exist--and never has existed--in the sport of track & field. Today's best track athletes usually compete in three events at most, with the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay being one of the more typical combinations. Owens took gold in those three events, but he also competed in a field event, the long jump. (He was also a world record holder in the 220 yard hurdles, but that particular event was not held at the Olympics.) Despite the sport being named "track and field," it is very rare for an athlete to actually compete in both track and field events. (It is almost equally rare for a sprinter to compete at a high level in hurdles events.) Considering that rarity, it makes what Owens did all the more impressive. The fact that Owens had less opportunity to rack up additional medals should not be held against him, as he was just as dominant and versatile in his sport as Phelps has been in swimming.
It should be noted that Carl Lewis, inspired by Jesse Owens, actually repeated Owens' feat of four gold medals in those exact same events in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Unfortunately Lewis' entire Olympic career, including his brilliant performance in 1984, is clouded by numerous positive drug tests.
Others may argue that Phelps has the edge for the simple fact that he set world or Olympic records in all of the events in which he competed in Beijing. But upon further examination we find that modern swimming records don't tend to last for very long and have been dropping like flies in Beijing. Because of the rate at which technology and training methods are advancing, there's a very good chance that all or most of Phelps' records will be broken again by the time the next Olympic games roll around. On the other hand, the two Olympic records and one world record that Owens broke in 1936 (in the 200m and long jump, and 4x100m, respectively) had impressive staying power, with the latter lasting over 20 years. Owens actually broke a fourth world record in the other event in which he participated in Berlin, the 100m, but it wasn't allowed to stand in the record books because the tailwind at the time was beyond the legal limit.
With four gold medals and three world records in hand, Owens returned to the United States to great fanfare, including ticker-tape parades in both New York City, and his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. But as an African-American he still faced discrimination. Owens often remarked that while it was commonly reported that Hitler wouldn't shake his hand, neither would President Roosevelt upon Owens' arrival back to the United States.
While back in the United States, Owens looked for a sponsorship or endorsement deal, but had no luck. In need of money, he was instead forced to run exhibition races to make ends meet, which led to a dispute with the United States Olympic Committee. Eventually he was stripped of his amateur status, which meant his Olympic career was over. Ultimately that decision may not have mattered, as the 1940 and 1944 Olympic games were both cancelled due to World War II. This is important because while Phelps is credited for competing at a high level in multiple Olympic games, Owens was never afforded the same opportunity. However few will argue with the fact that Owens made the most of his one appearance.
Admittedly, comparing athletes from different sports is an exercise in futility. It's very difficult to objectively compare a track athlete who competed in the the 1936 Olympics to a swimmer who competed in the 2008 Olympics. But all things considered, while Owens' Olympic accomplishments, on paper, may not look like they compare favorably to some of the other great performances in Olympic history, including Phelps' performance in the 2008 Olympics, it's important to take a closer look. One must inspect how sports at the Olympics are structured, and consider the amount of adversity Owens faced in Berlin in 1936, and the lack of support and respect he received back home. In doing so, one will realize that Owens' amazing accomplishments are all the more impressive. And one must also consider Owens' undeniable legacy. In smashing stereotypes held by many in the United States, and propagated abroad by people like Hitler, he paved the way for and influenced generations of African-American athletes, including baseball player Jackie Robinson and Olympic gold medalist Harrison Dillard, among many others. Even Walter Dix, 100m bronze medalist and member of the 4x100m relay team in these Beijing Olympics, has cited Owens as an inspiration.
In a society where "the latest" is oftentimes all that is considered in discussions about "the greatest," it is important to remember the past. While everyone is buzzing about Michael Phelps as the greatest Olympian of all-time and his performance in Beijing being the best Olympic performance ever, I respectfully disagree. To me, Jesse Owens' short Olympic career, and his performance in Nazi Germany in 1936 in particular, was exemplary of a true Olympian. That performance was, and will probably forever remain, unrivaled.