Memory of Jesse Owens lives on in Berlin

The US team at the World Athletics Championships, which starts Saturday in a stadium designed by Hitler's architect Albert Speer, has seized upon the legend of black American sprinter Jesse Owens, reports AFP's Luke Phillips.

Memory of Jesse Owens lives on in Berlin
Jesse Owens winning the 100 metre event at the 1936 Olympics. Photo: DPA

Jesse Owens became one of the most iconic figures in sporting history when he competed at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium when the games were hosted in the German capital in 1936.

Flying in the face of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi propganda that the Aryan white race were superior to coloured athletes, Owens won an unprecedented four gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump.

The sprinter died of lung cancer aged 66 in 1980, but all United States athletes here will compete in uniforms with the sprinter’s initials embroidered on their kit.

A grand-daughter of Owens, Marlene Dortch, has also joined up with the US team and will be involved in ceremonies honouring the American icon.

“I’m very excited to see the stadium where my grandfather competed,” she said. “Just to be able to be a part of such a great moment is an honour for me and my family. I’m very humbled and excited.

“I’m thankful that his legacy and his name lives on,” Dortch said.

“I hope that just having his initials on their kit will inspire some of the athletes to remember this time so many years ago.”

Owens, born James Cleveland Owens, the seventh son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, achieved what no Olympian before him had accomplished in winning four golds – a feat only matched by fellow American Carl Lewis in 1984.

His stunning achievement to dispel the Nazis’ master-race theory ironically came at a time when blacks were subject to segregation and discrimination in many parts of the United States.

But for Owens, the Olympics were never about making a political statement.

“I wanted no part of politics. And I wasn’t in Berlin to compete against any one athlete,” Owens once recalled.

“The purpose of the Olympics, anyway, was to do your best. As I’d learned long ago from (former coach) Charles Riley, the only victory that counts is the one over yourself.”

Kenyan-born US 1500 and 5000m defending world champion Bernard Lagat said Owens had left a lasting legacy.

“I am so excited about running to be running in the same stadium where he did such an amazing job in 1936,” Lagat said.

“For me, he opened a lot of doors not just for American athletes, but people all over the world and that is why it is a great message that we are coming here to celebrate his life.

“I am looking forward to wearing the uniform with the JO on it.

“That is his legacy and we have to live up to that, we have to give something back to a great legend.”

Allyson Felix, an Afro-American and reigning 200m world champion, added: “It’s an honour and definitely a privilege to run here.

“I feel Jessie Owens paved the way for us and I feel extremely grateful to him for this opportunity to do what he did.

“It was such an amazing achievement and he was a class act off the track as well, he is a role model and someone I look up to and it’s all the more special to be back here in Berlin and to run as well for the US as he did.”

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.