Rob Oller commentary | Jesse Owens' flaws ultimately don't diminish the man
Jesse Owens drank beer, smoked and fooled around on his future wife.
Typing those facts still does not come easily, not when you grew up idolizing Owens as more hero than human, more myth than man. For a good chunk of my adolescent life, I pictured the Olympian running in spikes, a halo vibrating over his head every time his foot flicked the cinder track. Owens did not fly so much as flit; a celestial sprinter barely touching the worldly surface.
I kept wanting to believe the Buckeye Bullet was flawless, wanted to remain naive, even as historians peeled the onion on his life, and even as Owens, a man of deep faith, reminded those worshiping him that the only perfect person wore a crown of thorns, not olive leaves.
As the years sped ahead 100 meters at a time, truth forced the reality baton into my fist: Owens' heart pumped blood, not holy water. So by the time the movie Race arrived in theaters this week, my boyhood image of Owens as the 13th disciple already had collapsed in a heaving heap.
But there is a critical difference between knowing what happened and knowing how it happened, especially when the latter comes at you on the big screen.
The first-ever feature film about Owens, Race covers a four-year window from when the Cleveland sprinter entered Ohio State in 1933 until soon after he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It is a well-crafted picture with some strong acting, particularly from lead Stephan James, but it also creates a dilemma for those who have chosen - guilty here - to know only what they want to know about the legend.
It is fine to go all-in biographically when the subject carries little emotional tug, but when the main character exists in your mind as someone elevated beyond mere mortal, well, is it wrong to spit the popcorn when truth trumps what has been considered reverential?
Imagine Pride of the Yankees ending with Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, slumped in a wheelchair, unable to speak as the late stages of ALS ravage his body. We know it happened, but that is not how we want to remember the Iron Horse.
Today, everything is about presenting the person unvarnished. As a journalist, I respect the pursuit of accuracy. But the child in me believes in some benefit of not knowing how the sausage is made.
Somewhat conflicted, I spoke with Owens' daughter, Marlene Owens Rankin, to get her thoughts on the movie. To be clear, the film overwhelmingly paints her father positively. But a few warts emerge on what otherwise is a man of impeccable character.
"He was an athlete, but also a man," Rankin said Thursday, a day before Race premiered nationwide. "We had final script approval, and all of it was true. There were a number of things we took out because we didn't think they were appropriate or true.
"You don't want to saint him, because many out there would not believe it anyway, and it might bring into question the accuracy of all the good things about him if you don't show some of the qualities that were less than exemplary."
Perfectly explained. Showing Owens unpolished instead of gift-wrapped makes him more relatable, and that is what most matters. Owens lost his temper, talked back to his coach and traded his girlfriend's trust for a good time, but he also encountered obstacles not of his own making and overcame them. He displayed perseverance. And that is a trait always worth watching.
Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.