Politics and Olympics colliding? Jesse Owens would approve

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Politics and Olympics colliding? Jesse Owens would approve originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

  • Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on NBC Sports Bay Area on Thursday, July 22 after the conclusion of "Giants Postgame Live" at approximately 11 p.m.

You probably remember Gwen Barry, the hammer thrower whose peaceful protest during the United States Olympic Trials caused quite the uproar among those either ignorant to or without sympathy for her cause.

She will not give in.

You surely remember Sha’Carri Richardson, the brilliant sprinter who blistered the field during the trials but a few days later was slapped with a cannabis-related suspension that cost her a trip to Tokyo.

She will not become invisible.

Neither has plans to concede, and both will have allies at the Tokyo Olympics as well as back home in the states.

Among them is Gina Hemphill-Strachan, the granddaughter of perhaps the most celebrated and simultaneously mistreated Olympian in American history: Jesse Owens.

When Owens died in 1980, Hemphill-Strachan was a young adult left with two decades of memories. She’d known her grandfather throughout childhood, long enough to feel the harm of bigotry. As a guest on the latest episode of “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” which premieres Thursday night following Giants baseball on NBC Sports Bay Area, she recalls her grandfather’s grace in the face of blatant racism.

“He was human,” Hemphill-Strachan says. “He definitely had some bitterness. But my grandfather lived a life of gratitude. Even in his bitterness, he lived a life of gratitude. He lived a life of (humility). He was humble in the way that he appreciated what people appreciated about him.”

The Olympics are the perfect platform for those who wish to address the state of global civilization. The Games are by nature political.

The world is a captive audience. Those representing America on such a stage do not perform with a heart full of hate. Rather, their presence is an expression of national love despite injustice.

Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, whose raised-fists demonstration on the medal stand in 1968 gilded their images in history, wore the red, white and blue in Mexico City. They were not anti-America. They were anti-racism in the “land of the free.” Those fists in the air were a symbolic plea for a better homeland.

Both were immediately banished from the games, returning home to pay the steep price of ostracism.

It’s conceivable that no one among all the freedom fighters in the 20th century, provided America with a more timely and perfect opportunity to turn toward equality than did Owens. He won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics and did so on German soil, with Adolf Hitler in the audience. This was a win for the U.S. and a loss for white supremacy espoused by Hitler.

Despite pleas from “negro” leaders, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, considered a “liberal” despite interning Japanese citizens and declining to support federal anti-lynching legislation, neither called nor met with the biggest star of the Berlin Games. 

“All of those things that normally would come to somebody that won four gold medals in the Olympic Games, somebody who had accomplished what he did – especially in this country – those things did not come to him,” Hemphill Strachan says. “Those things were not presented to him. Those things were not afforded him.”

Now, 85 years after Owens dominated the Olympics, America is experiencing another surge of racism, complete with legislation designed to suppress the urban vote and even limit the honest teaching of American history.

This is why Berry, finishing third in the hammer throw in the trials, turned away from the flag as the national anthem played and wrapped herself in a T-shirt with two printed words: “Activist Athlete.” Medal or no medal, she will project that message in Tokyo.

This is why Richardson, whose suspension carried racial undertones, is not sitting in silence. She is the star of a stunning Beats earbuds TV ad produced by music artist Kanye West, whose song “No Child Left Behind” is the soundtrack. The one-minute ad played Tuesday during Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

As Richardson’s features fade and the screen goes black, three words appear: “Live Your Truth.”

“I think he would be proud, really, of these athletes using their platforms to have a voice,” Hemphill-Strachan says of her grandfather. “To have a voice for the voiceless. To be seen as more than just your entertainment on TV or on the basketball court or on the football field.”

Oh, there will be voices. That so much has happened in the five years since the Rio Games is recognized by the International Olympic Committee, which will make allowances for protest and political expression during the games.

“I’m going to be watching,” Hemphill-Strachan says. “I hope that the whole conversation about people of color – specifically Black folks – not watching, in support of Sha’Carri Richardson, takes a shift and embraces all the other athletes of color, African-Americans, who have worked a long, long time to make it to these games.

“To be able to celebrate those who are at the end of their Olympic careers, like Simone Biles and Allyson Felix. To be able to celebrate young black swimmers like Simone Manuel. To be able to celebrate the Paralympic archer (Andre Shelby).”