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Olympics

Jesse Owens' gold medal goes under hammer, to IOC's disappointment

One of the four gold medals claimed by the black athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, during Adolf Hitler's reign, is being sold at auction. The International Olympic Committee has criticized the sale.

Online bidders can submit their offers for a piece of Olympic history that also recalls the history of Nazi Germany and of American segregation. One of the four gold medals won by Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 will have a new owner by December 7; estimates suggest that the medal could fetch about $1 million (737,000 euros).

Owens won gold in the 100- and 200-meters, the 400-meter relay and the long jump in the Berlin Games, triumphing in front of Adolf Hitler and undermining Nazi propaganda myths on Aryan supremacy.

He returned to America as a celebrity but still struggled under policies of segregation.

Jesse Owens breaking out of the blocks in the 1938 Olympic 200-meter final. (Archive image via dpa)

Owens ran the 100-meters in 10.3 seconds, and the 200- in 20.7 seconds

"When they came back, the US was just as it was when he left - segregated. Even though he came back an Olympic hero, he wasn't offered opportunities that Olympic heroes of today are offered," his daughter, Marlene Owens Rankin, told the Associated Press news agency. "We lived well, a middle-class life. We didn't want for much. But like many black men of that era, he struggled to provide for his family."

Owens had given the medal to a personal friend, the African-American dancer and movie star Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, as a token of thanks.

"They formed a friendship and also a professional relationship. Bojangles helped Owens get work in the entertainment field," SCP Auctions partner Dan Imler said. "Owens gave him the medal out of gratitude and as a token of their friendship."

IOC uneasy about sale of 'world heritage'

The Robinson family put the medal up for sale, with SCP Auctions saying they planned to use the proceeds to pay college tuition fees and for charitable donations. The whereabouts of the other three original golds are unknown; Owens was presented with replacements later in life. He died in 1980, aged 66.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told AP in November that he considered the medal to be "a part of world heritage," saying he was therefore uneasy at the idea of auctioning it off.

"[The medal has] an importance far beyond the sporting achievements of Jesse Owens, which is part of world history," said Bach, who became IOC president on September 10. "To put this up for an auction is for me a very difficult decision [to accept]."

Bach also said, however, that the IOC would not seek to intervene in the sale. The auctioneers, meanwhile, have said they hope the medal will end up on public display.

"Whether this medal is purchased by a private individual or an institution, SCP Auctions and our consignor share in the feeling that the ideal place for Jesse Owens' gold medal is on display in a museum, where it can be shared with the public and perpetuate Owens' inspiring legacy," Dan Imler said.

Owens' daughter said she shared this hope.

msh/mkg (AP, dpa, SID)