Cathy Freeman
and Jesse Owens

by Duayne from Geelong

A hero is someone who can endure and overcome major challenges to achieve greatness. A hero never gives up. The thought never even crosses their mind. They are focused and determined on working long and hard to always try harder than their hardest. A hero is someone who does more than help themselves, they never abandon someone who is relying on them, and they always make the best of every situation. That is why my hero is Jesse Owens.

James Cleveland Owens was born on September 12, 1913 in Danville, Alabama. He was the seventh of eleven children to be born to his parents, who made their living as sharecroppers. Their life was rough and there were times when not enough food was available for them all. When James Cleveland, or J.C., was seven they sold their farming equipment and moved out of their small unheated home, setting foot for Cleveland, Ohio where they hoped to find prosperity. The young Owens entered city grade school and was accidentally given the name Jesse by a teacher when she recorded his name of "J.C." He raced with friends in the schoolyard and in his neighborhood. Charles Riley, the Junior High track coach, noticed Jesse and began working with him before school hours, so he could still hold a part time job to help his parents pay bills. In high school, he set national records in the 100m dash, 200m dash, and the broad jump (today called the long jump). Although many colleges were after Owens to be their athlete, he never looked at college as a serious possibility because his family and his wife (he married at eighteen) needed his financial support. Even though he had such great promise, he would not leave his family to be without his financial support. Only after Ohio State found a steady job for his father that would support the family, did he enter college. He did not receive a scholarship and instead paid for his own tuition by working three jobs in addition to keeping up his studies and training hard to become a great athlete. He faced many problems with segregation. In the early 1930's, all African-American students, including Owens, were required to live off campus. On trips to away competitions he had to eat at "blacks-only" restaurants and stay at similar hotels. Occasionally, a "white" hotel would allow him to stay there but he was not allowed to use the elevators or the front door.

On May 25, 1935, Owens traveled to The Big Ten track and field championships, being held in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He had recently fallen down a fight of stairs, and his coaches were not sure if he would be able to participate in the meet. Even if Owens was not completely ready to run, he was determined to compete and do his best. After convincing his coaches, he ran the 100 yard dash. All three of the official timers clocked him at the same 9.4 seconds, tying the previous world record. Only fifteen minutes later, he took first place in the broad jump. He flew 26 feet 8 ¼ inches, shattering the previous world record of 26 ft. 2 ½ inches, by nearly six inches. He went on to compete in the 220 yard dash, finishing with a time of 20.3 seconds, a new world record. He competed in one more event, the 220 yard low hurdles, and set another world record with a time of 22.6 seconds. Despite the pain he had been in, he set three world records and tied a fourth in just over an hour's time, which is practically a world record of its own. This was an amazing feat, but his triumph didn't stop there. He entered the 1936 Olympics that were to be held in Nazi Germany's Capitol, Berlin. Hitler was planning on using these Olympic Games to showcase Aryan athletes like his track and field star Lutz Long. Long and Owens first competed against each other in the broad jump. Long started off by jumping to a new Olympic record. This made Owens very nervous because even though he had previously jumped farther than Long's record, he was only human. Owens missed his first two attempts at the jump, and with only one attempt remaining, he leapt beyond Long's newly made record and to a new Olympic record of his own. Hitler was furious and left the stadium, while the mostly German crowd cheered and chanted for Owens. He went on to also win a gold medal in the 100 meter dash, the 200 meter dash, and the 400 meter relay he was part of.

After earning four gold medals and setting three Olympic Records, he returned home to great parades and great praise, but within months was unable to find work. "I came back to my native country and I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted..." quoted Owens. He left college prior to his senior year so that he would be able to provide more support for his family. He turned to be a professional runner. He ran a series of entertainment races against horses, cars, and motorcycles. All the while he was looking for other means of work. He was at one point a partner of a dry cleaning company but nothing seemed to provide him with a reliable income. In 1950, he moved from Cleveland to Chicago and began working with children as a director of the South Side Boys Club. He gave speeches, along with other celebrities such as the Harlem Globetrotters, on the Goodwill Tours in America. In the early 70's he published two books, Blackthink and I Have Changed. Owens was invited to the White House to honor his Olympic accomplishments by President Gerald Ford, receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom, forty years after the fact. Two years later in 1979, President Jimmy Carter awarded him with a Living Legend Award. Jesse Owens died on March 31, 1980 due to lung cancer. Ten years later in 1990, he was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal by President George H.W. Bush.

As the son of a sharecropper and the grandchild of a slave, he had a lot to overcome. He worked hard his entire life to reach greatness. He was much more than a record setting athlete. He avidly opposed segregation and racism, and serves as a blatant example of how America failed to treat all as equals. He persevered through to achieve greatness beyond most people's hopes and dreams. Jesse Owens once said, "Any black who strives to achieve in this country should think in terms of not only himself but also how he can reach down and grab another black child and pull him to the top of the mountain where he is." This quote is reflected in his everyday attitude of his own life. He would never go to the top and leave others behind, for example not taking off to college until he made sure his family would be able do without his financial support. He helped children in the Southside Club, and made every effort to use his accomplishments to better the world for others. That is why Jesse Owens is my hero.

Now for Cathy Freeman

The bold tattoo on her right triceps reads: “Cos I’m Free.” Her running shoes sport the bright red, black and yellow of her beloved Australian Aboriginal flag as she races across finish lines and receives award upon award.

Cathy Freeman is proud of being a star athlete and prouder of being a native Australian.

As Australia’s first Aboriginal track and field athlete to represent Australia at the Olympics (in 1992), Cathy, born February 16, 1973, has broken boundaries no one believed possible in a country riddled with deep-rooted racism against its own natives.

Although her running career stats read like a page out of that of any historical world-class athlete, she has still been met with a mix of controversy and praise thanks to her unbridled overt passion towards her heritage.

In a both genuinely heartfelt and bold gesture, at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, Cathy took her victory lap with the Aboriginal flag draped over her shoulders and then later added the Australian flag. It was a public proclamation of Aborignal rights and a powerful political statement.

Cathy told the New York Times, "The time will come when I can be more instrumental in politics and Aboriginal affairs. But now, I think I'm playing a big part doing what I'm doing."

Her proclamation of rights has brought both criticism and commendation from the Australian public and from key officials. With her 1994 gesture, she received over 5000 faxes of support following her victory lap, including one from then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating. But she was also met with heavy criticism from Arthur Tunstall, senior Australian Commonwealth Games official.

She stills remains the object of prejudice despite her talent and the glory her awards bring to Australia. She attracts both press criticism and public disapproval for a cultural pride many feel should be kept undercover. There was even an appeal for nominations as to whom the flag-bearer should be at the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 games and some wrote in saying it shouldn’t be Cathy.

"I just wanted to show I am proud of who I am and where I come from. I would love to one day go out to the bush and spend time with the elders of my culture, and get back to my roots," she said.

The negative feedback does not appear to be discouraging her demonstrations of Aboriginal pride in any way. Following her 400-meter victory at the 1997 World Championships, she repeated her 1994 action.

But in 1998, Cathy was named Australian of the Year, one of the biggest civilian honours in Australia. In 1990 she had been awarded Young Australian of the Year, making her the only person ever to be awarded both honors. Perhaps related, it was the Australian, not Aboriginal, flag she carried on her victory lap after retaining her title in the 1999 World Championships. She was later selected by Australia to light the Olympic Cauldron.

After lighting the torch, Cathy was quoted as saying "Much is made about me being an Aboriginal. This fact should be celebrated, not abused. I love where I come from, but I am not at the Olympics to be political. I don't think to myself that I've got to make this next move for the Aboriginal cause.” While some may take this as a hypocritical thought from someone thought to be a forerunner for Aboriginal rights, in reality it just proves that her actions are heartfelt, not planned. They are dictated from within without a thought to consequence, negative or positive.

Among a plethora of awards and commendations, Cathy has been named the 2000 Laureus Female Athlete of the Year, regarded as the sporting equivalent of an Oscar. She has represented Australia in 16 teams, at 5 World championships, 3 Olympics, 3 Commonwealths, 2 World Juniors, 2 World Indoors, and 1 World Cup. She has received 13 medals in International Competitions, 7 of which have been gold. She has set 9 Australian open records and is the Commonwealth 400m record holder. On the World All-time lists she sits 6th in the 400m and 13th in the 4x400m.

A fearless promoter of her Aboriginal culture, Cathy Freeman regularly proves to the world with her unbridled talent and boundless determination that natural skill and personal will can overcome any amount of prejudice.

Page created on 9/13/2004 12:00:00 AM

Last edited 9/13/2004 12:00:00 AM

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