Off the record

On June 20th, 1936, on the gravel track of the old Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, Jesse Owens ran 100 yards in 9.55 seconds, and for seventy three years, ten months and twenty eight days, no one who stepped on that track ran any faster. Owens went on to compete in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he won four gold medals, set three world records and made Adolf Hitler’s claims about the natural superiority of the Aryan race look ridiculous.

The actual track that Owens ran on is gone. The bleachers of the original Stagg Field, which were once set up to hold 50,000 spectators, were torn down in 1957 to make room for the Regenstein Library, and the track itself was erased a decade later. The new Stagg Field is two blocks away from the original site, and while the new “Ted Haydon track” took on a new namesake, it kept the same record book.

Last Saturday, on a cool afternoon with almost no wind blowing, Ryan Shields, competing as an unattached individual, ran one hundred meters in 10.37 seconds. Converting from yards to meters, he broke Owens’s record by 0.7 seconds. The meet’s announcer got on the loudspeaker and declared that something “pretty special” had just occurred.

The new track is now a solid, bright orange surface, and the seating capacity is 1,500, and the world record that Owens once set in Berlin is now well over half a second faster. The 100 yards of space that Owens covered run through what is now the first floor of the library, probably somewhere near the circulation desk.

When Jesse Owens died in 1980, his funeral was held in Rockefeller Chapel. He was buried at Oak Woods Cemetery at 67th and Cottage Grove, eleven blocks south of the new track where his record was finally broken.

A few hundred people witnessed the moment on Saturday, most of them athletes competing in other events. Few of them were aware that Jesse Owens had ever held the facility record, until the moment that he lost it. Then they paused, clapped for a moment, and congratulated the winner before the next race began.