Gerald R. Ford photo

Remarks to Members of the U.S. Olympic Team and Presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jesse Owens

August 05, 1976

Distinguished athletes and guests, members of the Commission on Olympic Sports:

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of seeing all of you at Plattsburg1 and being your guest on that occasion. And it is a great privilege and pleasure for me and Mrs. Ford to welcome all of you here in the East Garden of the White House.

At that time in Plattsburg, I congratulated you on making the American Olympic Team. I wished you good luck before you left for Montreal, and I am very happy to welcome you all back and to congratulate you once again--this time for having done a magnificent, a superb job.

I hope the athletes have had an opportunity in the last few days to rest up a bit. Let me say that you were not alone in your feats of stamina and strength. Millions of Americans, including myself, are now recovering from the marathon sessions with their TV sets. [Laughter]

We watched you and your teammates rack up 94 medals, a truly outstanding performance. You won gold, silver, and bronze. Some of you set records. You gave your utmost effort, and on behalf of all Americans, we were very, very proud of you.

Your achievements are more impressive, in my judgment, for the fact you were up against some of the athletes whose training is subsidized in various ways by their governments. In this country it has always been up to those with talent to make their own way in training and in preparing for the highest level of competition. Our belief in the independence of the athlete and the importance of the amateur tradition has held us back from all-out government support.

As one of your teammates said, and said so well, "I wouldn't trade any of my personal freedom for all the records in the world." At the same time I believe the Federal Government can do more to help athletically talented young people achieve their very, very best in the Olympic competition.

Earlier this year I proposed to provide funding for the permanent winter sports facilities at Lake Placid, New York, to be used for the 1980 Winter Olympics and thereafter to train future American champions.2 We can do more than that in the long run. Therefore, I am asking the Congress to extend the life of my Commission on Olympic Sports until January of next year. In that time I am asking the Commission not only to address the problem of sports organization in the United States but also to recommend effective mechanisms for funding training and development of our Olympic competitors.

Other countries have found creative ideas other than government funding. I am confident we will find ways in which American athletes can be provided the means for Olympic training and development, while preserving their bona fide amateur status.

This year's Olympic games, as you all know, had their share of controversy. International politics sometimes threatened to overshadow athletic achievements. In the last week or two, we have even heard some people calling for the Olympic flame to be permanently extinguished. I strongly disagree. I am confident that the Olympic games can be freed from world politics in the future, reviving the spirit of sacred armistice which prevailed at the original games hundreds of years ago.

I am confident that in the long run the larger view will prevail--that a great athletic performance is a personal achievement before it is a national achievement. Whatever their nationality, all athletes are working against the same physical and mental constraints of the human body, of gravity and time. The challenges that all athletes face in common are more important than the boundaries that divide them. That is the true spirit of the Olympic games.

It is in that spirit that I pledge our efforts to ensure that in 1980, at which time we will be hosting the Olympic games in Lake Placid, politics be kept out of the arena. We will welcome every team recognized by the International Olympic Committee. Attempts to use the Olympic games for international power politics will ultimately backfire. Our friend Jessi Owens, here with us today, proved that.

In 1936 when Adolph Hitler was trying to turn the games into a spectacle that would glorify racist dogma of the Nazi state, there was a strong movement in the United States against our participation in the games. As it turned out, U.S. participation in those Olympics provided a sharp rebuke of Hitler's racist rubbish. Five black American athletes won eight gold medals in track and field. One American athlete in particular proved that excellence knows no racial or political limits. That man is Jesse Owens.

I don't have to tell any of you who studied the history of the Olympics of his phenomenal career. I happened to be a student at the University of Michigan when Jesse Owens was a student at Ohio State--as Woody Hayes3 calls it, that school up north. [Laughter] I saw Jesse Owens at a Big 10 track meet in Ann Arbor, as 1 of some 10,000 or 12,000 spectators, when he broke three world records and tied a fourth. His performance that day in the broad jump--26 feet 8¼ [5 5/16] inches--was not equaled for 25 years. It was a triumph that all of us will remember.

In the 1936 Olympics Jesse Owens won four gold medals--the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the 400-meter relay, and the broad jump. He personally achieved what no statesman, journalist, or general achieved at that time--he forced Adolph Hitler to leave the stadium rather than acknowledge the superb victories of a black American.

Fifteen years later, revisiting the same stadium, Jesse Owens received a standing ovation when he urged his audience, and I quote, "to stand fast with us for freedom and democracy." Giants like Jesse Owens show us why politics will never defeat the Olympic spirit. His character, his achievements have continued to inspire Americans as they did the whole world in 1936.

He brought his own talents into the service of others. As a speaker, as an author, as a coach, he has inspired many young men and women to achieve their very best for themselves and for America. As an American who rose from poverty to a position of leadership, he has motivated many, many others to make the most of what America has to offer.

Jesse Owens is a modest man. Jesse may wonder why I am singing his praises here today.

Jesse, would you please step forward?

Jesse, it is my privilege to present you today with the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor that your country can bestow. And I present you with this medal on behalf of the people of the United States. For them in particular, and especially for the athletes like those here today, your character, your achievements will always be a source of inspiration.

The citation reads as follows: "To Jesse Owens, athlete, humanitarian, speaker, author--a master of the spirit as well as the mechanics of sport. He is a winner who knows that winning is not everything. He has shared with others his courage, his dedication to the highest ideals of sportsmanship. His achievements have shown us all the promise of America and his faith in America has inspired countless others to do their best for themselves and for their country."

1 See Items 658 and 659.

2 See Item 438.

3 Head coach of the Ohio State University football team.

Note: The President spoke at 3:15 p.m. in the East Garden at the White House.

Mr. Owens' response to the President's remarks is printed in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (vol. 12, p. 1245).

Gerald R. Ford, Remarks to Members of the U.S. Olympic Team and Presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jesse Owens Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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