Friday, April 27, 2012

American Experience: Jesse Owens



A few weeks back a couple of friendly publicists for the popular PBS program "American Experience" emailed me to ask if I'd be interested in previewing the new documentary "Jesse Owens" set to premiere nationally on May 1.

Hello! Twist my arm!

"American Experience" is a longtime favorite in the Wolaver home. Outstanding programs. Their series "New York: A Documentary Series by Ric Burns" is an all-time great for Public Broadcasting.

So without hesitation I accepted the opportunity to view "Jesse Owens."

This is not the first film featuring the 1936 Olympic champion. In 1984 there was a made for TV mini-series "The Jesse Owens Story" which was, on the heels of "Chariots of Fire," among the first Olympic films I watched. In the 28 years since, there were other Jesse Owens tributes and specials, and a few years ago I stopped in rural Oakville, Ala., at the Jesse Owens Museum.

And of course, Owens appears in the original Olympic documentary film "Olympia" by Leni Riefenstahl, with several clips from this sports photography masterpiece appearing in the current "American Experience" program.

The new "Jesse Owens" feature comes to us from the team of Laurens Grant and Stanley Nelson, the producers of the Emmy winning documentary "Freedom Riders." They did a nice job with the new documentary, though with a few quirks.

It struck me funny that Owens' first eight years -- among 10 siblings residing in rural Alabama -- received only one mention of the Southern state, with no footage of his hometown museum; the filmmakers instead noted Cleveland as the launching point for the Owens story.

I also had a bone to pick with the film's one odd visual: The opening sequence included some interesting X-ray footage (early black and white X-ray films of bones and joints showcasing movement). "Were these Owens' bones?" I pondered, wondering the source of the skeletal footage (still scratching my head ... why was this inserted?).

With these two initial observations noted, the film quickly got to the Owens tale many already know.

We learn about his early track days, coaches and initial success juxtaposed with racial inequality that was the norm of his time, with Owens denied restaurant service and hotel accommodations -- and even an on-campus dorm room -- due to segregation.

We're also introduced to Owens fans who were his contemporaries, including U.S. Olympic Teammates Iris Cummings Critchell (swimming) and Louis Zamperini (athletics), as well as Berlin Olympiad spectators Theodor Michael and Hilmar Dressler, who read about Owens in German newspapers during the buildup to the Games. There's also the great sportsmanship shared by Owens and German long jump rival Carl "Luz" Long, who famously walked arm in arm after receiving their Olympic medals, an Olympic-sized flipping of the bird to Hitler and all he stood for in front of the world.

One thing I learned in this documentary was how the NAACP encouraged Owens to speak out against Team USA heading to Berlin at all. But after Owens brought up this opposition, many of the key influencers of the time, including his own coach and American Olympic Committee leader Avery Brundage, quickly quashed the track star's anti-Games remarks.

This was not the last time Brundage and others overruled Owens and teammates, as viewers learn of Games-time politics and post-Olympic promotions that Owens endured for several months, ultimately denying him many opportunities to cash in on his success.

Sidebar: Brundage is a controversial figure in Olympic history worthy of his own "American Experience" documentary -- in this "Jesse Owens" film, Brundage is painted in a negative light, cast perhaps unfairly with near-Hitler-level "bad guy" status, without noting enough context about Brundage's multiple hats for the IOC, AOC and AAU while delving into his perspectives on Jewish athletes -- I write this not in defense of Brundage's reprehensible actions; rather, to encourage viewers and readers of this blog to absorb the "Jesse Owens" Brundage footage and voiceovers with a grain of salt, or to learn more about Brundage beyond the film.

Another key learning from "American Experience: Jesse Owens" was Owens' main pre-Games competition, a runner named Eulace Peacock (if NBC was the host broadcaster for the 1936 Olympics, where television debuted, they would have had a field day given their winged logo). Unfortunately, Peacock -- named by the AP as the gold medal favorite for Berlin -- was denied a spot on Team USA due to an injury.

The film also notes Thomas Wolfe's perspectives on the Games as he attended the Opening Ceremony and track competitions as a celebrity guest. Zamperini also tells of the unfortunate aftermath of cannon fire (during the opening ceremony) which startled thousands of peace doves, er, pigeons released above the athletes who marched into the stadium. It was fun to see some of my fellow members of the International Society of Olympic Historians on the small screen.

An interesting visual element during the Berlin sequences: Animation using iconic Olympic posters for the Berlin Games. The producers also converted several still photos into animation, an appealing move that brought to life several of Owens' races.

The film concludes with a brief sequence of Owens' post-Games activities, which saw him fade into obscurity for decades before desegregation and renewed Olympic and U.S. patriotism brought him back into the limelight during the 1960s and 1970s.

I enjoyed the "Jesse Owens" feature for "American Experience" and it is worth one's time to tune in to local PBS stations. One of the best things about "American Experience" is that the series always inspires me to do more of my own research, and that is true of the "Jesse Owens" documentary.

In preparing this Olympic blog post, for instance, I learned more about Wolfe, and that Peacock (also from a rural Alabama town) and  Owens later opened a business together, according to this biography. I also learned that Owens opened his own public relations firm in Chicago, according to this timeline (in step with Dan Edelman, founder of the world's largest independent P.R. firm, my former employer). These fun facts did not make it to the final version of "American Experience: Jesse Owens" but I am thankful the documentary led me to learn these details.

Photos via this link, this link and this link

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Remembering Leroy Walker

Sad to learn today that former U.S. Olympic Committee President Leroy Walker died Monday in North Carolina.

Walker led the USOC following the resignation of Robert Helmick during the early 1990s, in charge during three U.S. Olympic Festivals (San Antonio 1993, St. Louis 1994 and Denver-Boulder-Colorado Springs 1995) where I worked on staff or as a volunteer (we shook hands at least once at each event).

As one of the summer of 1995 U.S. Olympic Training Center interns  (we were a motley crew from coast to coast staying in former military barracks at the USOTC in Colorado Springs), I also saw Walker from time to time on campus. The following year, Walker was a "regular" in the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) offices in the INFORUM building where I worked.

A winner of the IOC's highest honor, the Olympic Order, Walker was a nice man and leader never too proud to stop and visit with a junior employee.

Reading Walker's obituary tonight, I was reminded he led several Olympic athletics teams, notably in 1976 when Bruce Jenner and Edwin Moses competed with success. I did not know, until today, that Walker was born here in Atlanta. After the Atlanta Games drew criticism for multiple, avoidable snafus, and the Salt Lake 2002 organization got caught in a bribery scandal, Walker aptly predicted it may be a long time before the U.S.A. could again host the Games. I'm often afraid it's going to be too long -- the USOC needs some more Coach Walkers at the helm.

It was/is also a surprise that as of 11:15 p.m. ET today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution only posted an Associated Press version of an obituary to AJC.com. It's disappointing that after the AJC led some expansive coverage of the Atlanta Olympic bid, then preparation and finally the Centennial Olympic Games (including many archived reports including Walker) that the AJC did not yet craft its own report or remembrance for Walker. I tried to reach the sports assignment editor via email tonight for comment (no response as of this post).

Hopefully tomorrow the AJC will prove me wrong, or make things right by doing a follow up on Walker's influences in Georgia (Walker is a member of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, for instance).

Meanwhile, in the Chicago Tribune, veteran Olympic reporter Philip Hersh wrote a personal remembrance today that is a great summary of Walker's achievements.

Photo via this link (I believe this is a USOC handout photo from the 1990s)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Heavy Medal



A few nights ago my Olympic buddy Brian and I went back to age 10, if only for a few hours, as we absorbed about two hours of expertly crafted hard rock music.

Van Halen. In concert. It was so ... ON!

Yes, Eddie Van Halen, David Lee Roth & Co. put on a good show. Neither Philips Arena, nor my eardrums, may ever be the same.

Who knew that an ocean away some heavy metal was unveiled in the form of the London 2012 Olympic medals.

Check out The Princess Royal (former resident of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Village -- I still have one of her custom porcelain Centennial Games plates, thank you) with LOCOG Chairman Sebastian Coe opening Pandora's Box of praise and criticism for the newly minted designs.

I like the traditional side featuring Nike above the 1896 Athens Olympic Stadium (see design of 1896 Greek Olympic stamp a couple of posts prior to this one). Not sure what to make of the "modern" and logo-clad side, though the design is growing on me.

The Daily Mail newspaper crafted an interesting albeit commentary-rich Olympic medals infographic.

What do you think of the Olympic medals for London 2012?

Photo of The Princess Royal and Sebastian Coe via Getty Images; Infographic via the Daily Mail.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

London Olympic Stadium


Catching up on Olympic website reading lately, found an outstanding London 2012 photo gallery of aerial shots around the Olympic Stadium. Check this link for some amazing images.

Photos via LOCOG

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sticking It To The U.S. Postal Service


It's a bummer to research the upcoming 2012 postage stamp designs due for distribution by the U.S. Postal Service, which apparently is skipping London 2012 for a new Olympic stamp design.

I'm still learning about 2012 Olympic stamps and the Olympic philatelic traditions, but will just write briefly tonight that the U.S.P.S. is missing out on an opportunity to maintain several consecutive Olympiads of original and beautiful five-ringed designs (some of my personal favorites include Robert Peak's iconic Olympic stamps for 1984 in Los Angeles as well as Bart Forbes' designs for 1988 and 1992, the latter released during the 1990 U.S. Olympic Festival in Minneapolis/St. Paul).

What Olympic stamps are due out for other nations in 2012? I'm just starting to research this. If you see one you like, or loathe, please send me a link.

Olympic stamp images via links for dealers showcasing Athens 1896 and Los Angeles 1932 designs

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Stitch In Time Saves Nine


Kudos to the U.S. Olympic Committee, which unfurled a new fundraising campaign that should sew up some hefty donations to Team USA.

Through the "Raise Our Flag" campaign unveiled in tandem with 100 days to go until the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, the national Olympic committee for USA invites anyone with a stitch of patriotism and a Visa credit card to fork over $12 (a bargain by many modern fundraiser standards) for an honorary, virtual loop of thread in the American flag to be carried into the Olympic Stadium on July 27.

The purchasing process is quick, easy and also impressive in its social media savvy -- in less than two minutes and with just a few clicks, I selected the quantity of stitches to purchase, entered payment details then crafted a Tweet-length dedication for thread marks No. 2861 and No. 2862 in case you want a peek -- these initial two donations are in honor of my mother, a seamstress, and father, who is a retired federal employee.

What I love most about this fundraiser is how simple it is to see who else is donating (assuming they opt to share their name disclosed via the online donor wall), and also the ease with which others may be guilted into a donation via Facebook, Twitter and other social media means.

For instance, as of tonight (Friday 20 April), many of the leading Olympic journalists -- such as USA Today's Christine Brennan, the Chicago Tribune's Philip Hersh, CNBC's Darren Rovell and Around The Rings' Ed Hula -- did not yet post a donation to the domestic portion of the Olympic Movement that's inspired their work and countless keystrokes of reporting. When they donate I will cheerfully update this post to reflect their generosity.

Not too many of the big sponsors' CEOs or USOC staff -- like Chief Communications Officer Patrick Sandusky -- yet purchased their stitches. But it's been a busy week and the program is new, and there's still time for these and other key folks to contribute.

It is cool to see two donors confirmed so far with the surname "Ross" (though neither with the first name Betsy) and that USOC CEO Scott Blackmun purchased several loops about which Julie Andrews listed among a few of her favorite things.

So, a needle pulling thread may eventually see donations posted by President Obama, Oprah Winfrey or even Steve Martin and costars from The Three Amigos (famous for exclaiming "We can sew!" and "Sew like the wind!" -- though not sure we may count on a donation to Team USA from amigo Martin Short, who is Canadian; oh, well, they've got red mittens to sew north of the border).

I sincerely hope this fundraising program meets tremendous success. Like the headline of this post proclaims, a stitch in time saves nine (and it's all about the Benjamins).

Photos via USOC

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Are You Going to London?

The 100 days to London countdown brought several questions to my inbox and Facebook posts, generally asking "are you going to London?"

In my case, the answer is "yes" but the details such as "when" and "how" are yet to be determined. The search for accomodations is underway, with suggestions and invitations welcome.

I noticed USA Today's travel reporter Kitty Bean Yancey posted a reader survey asking a similar question, and with early voting in progress, the "yes" crowd is not exactly in the lead. Check out the poll to cast your own vote.

Also, one one less days to go until the Olympic opening ceremonies, check out this great rhyme for No. 99. Sorry, U.K. the German original has a better (and the original) video online.

Photo via this link

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

100 Days To London

The 100 days to the London Olympics kind of snuck up on me.
Well, not exactly.
Since February 13, my world's been rocked and rolled by big changes, including dramatic career moves, family health issues, relationship turmoil. My brain's been on just about everything and anything EXCEPT the London 2012 Olympics.
But I want to change that all today and tonight by committing not just to 100 consecutive days of Olympic blog posts; rather, I'm writing here to commit to fresh posts every day now through 13 August 2012 (117 days from now), when the world will toast London's final hours of the 2012 Olympic Games and all eyes will shift to Rio de Janiero for 2016.
About 24 hours ago, the first photos for London's 100 Days countdown started popping up online, and they've really got some exciting things in store for this summer. Closer to home, today brought the U.S. Olympic Committee commemoration events in Times Square which looked promising (and I will take a peek at their results after completing this post). Sponsor news is everywhere. Oh, and then there's the athlete news!
Not sure what to post next, but the pile of newly published Olympic books, recent Olympic press kits and P.R. pitches, tear sheets of magazine and newspaper articles and scraps of paper on which blog ideas are scribed should yield an abundance of five-ringed Olympic blog posts in the hours, days, weeks and four months ahead.
Do you have an Olympic question? Send it to me! Do you have a topic or idea about which you want to read? Tell me and I'll see what I can do. Post it as a comment or email me via olympiada@ yahoo.com with "Olympic Blog Question" or "Olympic Blog Idea" and I'll take a look.
This Olympic year already proved to be remarkable -- any year when you shake hands with Clint Eastwood (as I did this time last week -- thanks, Eldredge ATL) has got to be good, or at least, well, extraordinary.
Here's to 100 Days of extraordinary, and 16 Days of Glory for London.
Photo via Reuters (LOCOG handout)

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