80 years on, about time to honor Jesse Owens

PALM DESERT, Aug. 1, 2016 – Given his iconic status even among the pantheon of Olympic heroes, you would think that Jesse Owens would have, by now, received the honors due him. Not so: there is one more to go.

Pete Cava, who was the director of communications for the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in the 1970s, sees the need to correct an 80-year-old wrong: recognizing Owens (pictured above starting the 200 m in Berlin) with the AAU’s own Sullivan Award.

According to the Sullivan Award Web site:

Known as the ‘Oscar’ of sports awards and older than The Heisman [Trophy], the AAU Sullivan Award honors the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. It has been presented annually by the AAU since 1930 as a salute to founder and past president of the Amateur Athletic Union, and pioneer in amateur sports, James E. Sullivan. Based on the qualities of leadership, character, sportsmanship, and the ideals of amateurism, the AAU Sullivan Award goes far beyond athletic accomplishments and honors those who have shown strong moral character.

Who better than Owens to receive it, but as Cava noted in an open letter sent today, he had no chance to receive it for his four-gold-medal performance in Berlin in 1936:


Eighty years ago at the Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens delivered one of the greatest performances in sports history.

Not long after, he was a victim of a great injustice.

At the 1936 Games, Nazi propagandists dismissed Owens and other African American members of the U.S team as “America’s black auxiliaries.” Athletes like Archie Williams (400 meters), John Woodruff (800 meters) and Cornelius Johnson (high jump) finished first in Berlin, toppling the Hitler regime’s boasts of Aryan supremacy.

The greatest performance belonged to Owens, who won gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters, the long jump and the 4×100 meter relay. No one had previously won those four events at the Olympics. No one would again until 1984.

In 2000, ESPN ranked Owens as the sixth-greatest North American athlete of the twentieth century. The Jesse Owens Award, American track and field’s highest honor, is named for him.

Beginning in 1930, the Amateur Athletic Union presented its James E. Sullivan Award to the year’s top U.S. amateur athlete. The first recipient was golfer Bobby Jones, followed by track and field performers Bernie Berlinger (1931), Jim Bausch (1932), Glenn Cunningham (1933) and Bill Bonthron (1934), and then golf’s Lawson Little (1935).

Yet the Sullivan Award for 1936 did not go to Jesse Owens. That year’s trophy went to Glenn Morris, the decathlon winner at the Berlin Games.

There were no African-American Sullivan Award recipients until 1954, when track athlete Mal Whitfield was the recipient.

The Sullivan Award has been called ‘An Oscar for Amateurs.’ The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents Oscar Awards for lifetime accomplishments.

This year, on the eightieth anniversary of his Olympic triumph, it’s time for AAU to honor Jesse Owens with a Sullivan Award for career achievement.


Pete Cava

The AAU – found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – is now headquartered in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. It announces its Sullivan Award finalists in March each year and awards the trophy at a gala in April. So there’s plenty of time for the organization to make the right gesture to a man whose ability, grace and humility are the benchmarks by which we measure the quality of our sportsmen and sportswomen today.

Rich Perelman has served and supported organizing committees of 20 multi-day, multi-venue events, including five Olympic Games, in the U.S., Canada and Europe. In addition to nearly 100 books and pamphlets, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, Track & Field News, Universal Sports and many other publications.

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