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The Olympics and Black History Month

The 2018 Winter Olympics, officially the XXIII Winter Games in South Korea, will come to an end late this month, coinciding with the observance of Black History Month here in the United States.

Olympic events historically have shown outstanding young American athletes in a variety of sports, and 2018 is certain to follow that tradition.

Each of us may have many different favorites in the long list of Olympics athletes, but it would be difficult to find two more spectacularly successful individuals than Jesse Owens in the 1936 games and Wilma Rudolph in 1960. Owens established world records in Germany and Rudolph in Italy, both before the first celebration of Black History Month in 1970.

Jesse Owens, the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave, was once the fastest man on earth. During the Great Depression, he managed to enroll as a student at Ohio State University while working part-time to help support his family. He set world records in track and field at the Big Ten Championships in 1935. Then in 1936, he became the first American track and field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad. It was a record that stood for almost half a century.

Wilma Rudolph, was a native Tennessean who was born in what is now a part of Clarksville. She was the 20th of 22 siblings from her father’s two marriages. Her father worked as a railway porter and her mother as a maid. She contracted polio at the age of four, was fortunate to recover, but she lost strength in her left leg and foot. It was not until she was 12 that she learned to walk without a leg brace or special shoe for support. She competed in amateur events and in 1956 qualified to compete at the Melbourne Olympic Games.

At the 1960 Summer Olympics, Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympiad. She was often referred to afterwards as “the fastest woman in history.” She often said that she had a special, personal reason to hope for victory: she wanted to pay tribute to Jesse Owens who had been her inspiration.

Both of these great black athletes set track and field records that have served younger generations for years as examples of unsurpassed achievement by individuals who had family support and unusual coaching, Owens at Ohio State and Rudolph at Tennessee State.

One of Wilma Rudolph’s often-repeated quotes is “No matter what accomplishments you make, somebody helps you.” It was one of Jesse Owens’ daughters whose quote was directed at today’s youth, “You don’t have to have everything to want to be somebody. You can find more people that want to help you than you think.”

The lives of both are documented in various books, television, and movies not just for Black History Month but for a new generation of Americans.

William H. Baker, native of Claiborne County, Tennessee, and former resident of Middlesboro, may be contacted at wbaker@limestone.edu.