Nearly 80 years after his golden exploits clinched an eternal place in Olympic history and more than three decades after he passed away, Jesse Owens is seemingly still capable of breaking records.
The sports memorabilia community is abuzz this week after one of Owens' gold medals from the 1936 Berlin Games was put up for auction, with the iconic item predicted to fetch more than $1 million. It is unclear which event Owens won the medal for – in Berlin he tasted victory in the 100 meters, 200, 4x100 relay and the long jump – and back then the prizes were not inscribed with engraving that identified a specific athletic discipline.
However, the medal is regarded as a symbolic part of Olympic and cultural history, part of the glut of success that saw Owens embarrass Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime and its sinister racist ethos.
"It is more than just a prize that celebrates success in athletics, but one that has huge significance in world history," said Dan Imler, vice president of SCP Auctions. "Owens is one of those rare figures who totally transcended sports and that is what makes the item so unique."
The current record for an Olympic medal at auction was set in 2010, when the gold originally presented to Mark Wells of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" United States hockey team resold for $310,700. The record for Olympic memorabilia of any description is the $865,000 for a silver cup awarded to Spyridon Louis, winner of the first-ever Olympic marathon at the Athens Games of 1896.
The American record was paid for the jersey worn by "Miracle on Ice" captain Mike Eruzione, which fetched $657,250 earlier this year.
As memorable as that Lake Placid triumph was – and despite the length of time that has elapsed since Berlin – Owens' legendary status and the rarity of the item looks likely to push the asking price of his gold medal into seven figures. Furthermore, Owens' medal comes with a backstory unknown even to those familiar with Olympic history.
"When Owens returned from the Olympics in Berlin, he didn't get the kind of hero's welcome you might expect," Imler said. "It was still a segregated America, and the kind of opportunities available to today's superstars were not there for him."
Tired from his Games achievements, Owens snubbed a fundraising post-Olympic fundraising tour, much to the ire of U.S. Olympic officials. That decision caused him to be stripped of his amateur status as punishment, meaning he would be ineligible to compete in future Games.
Before long, Owens began to struggle to make ends meet and was befriended by legendary tap dancer and actor Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who was then middle-aged but still drawing big crowds and rave reviews. Robinson and his manager Marty Forkins helped Owens gain employment in the entertainment industry by performing in stage shows and providing him with extra cash when it was needed.
"As a token of his gratitude, Owens presented Robinson with one of his Olympic golds," Imler said.
SCP Auctions was authorized to sell the item by the estate of Robinson's widow, Elaine Plaines-Robinson. The medal goes up for sale on Wednesday, with bidding due to close on December 7.