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The greatest athlete of all time

The greatest athlete of all time

Michael Johnson credits Jesse Owens with making him a better athlete – and for leading the fight against injustices in athletics

Michael Johnson credits Jesse Owens with making him a better athlete – and for leading the fight against injustices in athletics

September/October 2015

Michael Johnson, 47, is an American sports commentator and former sprinter, whose unusual running gait didn’t stop him winning eight World Championship gold medals. James “Jesse” Owens (1913-80) was an American athlete who, in a propaganda disaster for Adolf Hitler, won four golds at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Berlin

I was trying to make history. At the Atlanta Olympics of 1996, I wanted to become the first man to win a gold medal in both the 400 metres and the 200 metres. It was after I won the 400 that I received a letter from Jesse Owens’s widow. She told me that watching me run reminded her of Jesse – and that was a really special thing for me. And I went on and won the 200 metres in a world-record time.

The person who shaped what I became, the man who most inspired me, was a truck-driver: Paul Johnson, my father. But Jesse matters to me more than any other athlete in history. He wasn’t a childhood role model – I was always outside playing sports, not watching it on television – but he became my inspiration, role model and hero afterwards, when I became a professional athlete. That’s when I realised that he was the greatest athlete of all time, at least in my opinion. His performance in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin was remarkable. Every Olympic athlete is under pressure – I know that – but what Jesse experienced in Nazi Germany as a black athlete was different to anything any athlete has experienced before or after. And yet he was still able to deliver. He won, and he showed the world many important truths at the same time. There will never be another athlete like Jesse.

He had to put up with racial problems and issues both on and off the track, yet still succeeded at the highest level. The pressure had to be unbelievable. I think he inspired me to be a better athlete. I can never be like him – but if I can come close, it’s a great honour.

Jesse Owens was truly special as a person and as an athlete. It’s because of people like him that I and many other athletes have the opportunities we do. The fight against injustices of all kinds, not just racial, continues, and we can all play a part. I try to play mine. 

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