Jesse Owens' 1936 Olympic Gold Medal
Selling price: $1.47 million
One of the biggest criticisms of the U.S. reaction to the Sochi games and Russia's oppression of its LGBT citizens is that it isn't exactly taking care of its own LGBT citizens, either.
That double standard has been applied before, but Jesse Owens used it to embarrass Adolph Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and give Hitler's Nazi regime its first public rebuke. At age 23, Owens won four gold medals, in the 100- and 200-meter dash, the long jump and as a member of the 4x100 meter relay team. He defeated Hitler's Aryan supermen and ridiculed his notion of white supremacy.
But Owens' performance in those games didn't put an end to anything. Hitler touched off World War II, ground up millions of lives in fighting it and erased millions more in wholesale genocide while pursuing racial purity. In 1945, he killed himself with a single gunshot to the head in a Berlin bunker as Russian forces prepared to capture the city. His remains were crushed, burned and thrown into a river years later.
Owens, meanwhile, came home and had his amateur status revoked by U.S. officials for having the gall to take money for commercials. He briefly owned a Negro League baseball team in Portland, Ore., called the Rosebuds. He would race against horses and local sprinters for cash. He was criticized for all of it, to which he responded: "People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals."
He was reduced to pumping gas, bankrupted, prosecuted for tax evasion and eventually used by the U.S. Olympic Committee as a pitchman. He lived in a nation where blacks were, at best, prevented from living in the same neighborhoods or using the same facilities as whites and, at worst, just outright killed because of the color of their skin. By the 1970s, he'd not only reversed his stance and supported the Black Power salute used by sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, but he stood against President Jimmy Carter's decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Owens is a sports icon who was seldom treated as such during his time. His medal -- which was sold by the estate of Elaine Plaines-Robinson, the wife of entertainer and Owens confidant Bill "Bojangles" Robinson -- may finally tell his more complete story when buyer and Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle incorporates it into his plans for an educational tour of various artifacts. These Olympics, meanwhile, may make a statement by awarding a U.S. LGBT athlete a medal in Sochi, but will only prove a symbolic victory if nothing changes for LGBT citizens in the U.S. and Russia afterward.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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