Television·Point of View

Perdita Felicien on the Jesse Owens biopic Race, protesting at the Olympics and fighting racism

“While we all may be equal within a stadium's gate, we are not all equal beyond it.”

“While we all may be equal within a stadium's gate, we are not all equal beyond it.”

Perdita Felicien, left, and Stephan James in the role of Jesse Owens, right. (CBC)

Perdita Felicien is one of Canada's most decorated track and field athletes. She is a retired hurdler and also an author, Olympian and a world champion who has covered multiple sporting events as a sports broadcaster for the CBC — including the 2018 Winter Olympics and 2016 Summer Olympics.

We've asked Felicien for her input and below, she shares her thoughts on our current #FilmGems selection, Race, which tells the story of Jesse Owens' life and his epic performance at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany where he faced off against Adolf Hitler's vision of Aryan supremacy.

She also talks about the impact on Black athletes who speak out against racism and more:

Canada's Perdita Felicien celebrating after winning the Women's 100m Hurdles race at the 2003 Iaaf Athletics World Championships at the Stade De France in Paris. (Photo by Louisa Gouliamaki/EPA/Shutterstock)

I don't know, if I were in Jesse Owens' shoes in 1936, if I would have travelled to Nazi Germany to compete in Hitler's Olympics. I would question if my attendance, as the world's fastest human, would validate the menacing regime. And I would worry about my safety.

But Jesse Owens did attend, and we know he won a historic four gold medals at those Olympics, effectively demolishing and mocking Hitler's claim of Aryan supremacy. 

The amount of pressure Jesse Owens was under eighty four years ago is not lost on me. He was expected to win but he was also expected to take a political stand.

I believe Jesse Owens' decision to compete in Germany was a form of protest. Owens showed the world what he, a Black man, could do. His victories were a resounding indictment against the oppression he experienced in the United States, but also in solidarity with the people of Germany.

I competed on the world stage for twelve years, and have heard the saying that sport unifies us all. It's comforting, but it creates a façade that we are all equal.

While we all may be equal within a stadium's gate, we are not all equal beyond it.- Perdita Felicien

I question what I would have done back then because today the protesting and conversations around police brutality and anti-Black racism are the loudest they have been in my lifetime. It somehow seems "safer," to speak out now, but I know that may not be true. Athletes who do speak up against discrimination and injustice are told to "stick to sports," their popularity and livelihoods threatened. 

In recent days, we've seen the IOC [International Olympic Committee] state that it won't tolerate any protesting at next summer's Olympics. But I think the IOC will soon realize that, like Jesse Owens, athletes will not be silenced.

Perdita Felicien's honest thoughts offer a perspective on the impact that one man like Jesse Owens can have and the hard decisions he faced before going into the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

American sprinter and athlete Jesse Owens who won 4 gold medals for running and field events in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. ((Hulton Archive/Getty Images))

Owens not only distinguished himself as a legendary athlete who's record stood unbeaten for 48 years but also as a beacon of hope for many Black people and aspiring athletes of the time and of today. And as the NFL's Richard Sherman said: 

That story can transcend any generation.​- Richard Sherman

Owens' story is just one powerful eye-opening journey among many important ones. It would be amazing if these stories had a happy ending but unfortunately, even after Owens' contributions to the world, he didn't get to enjoy the fruits of his labour. 

We can't turn back time but what we can do, however, is learn from our mistakes and ensure we don't make them again. We can be better. We can apologize non-defensively and acknowledge the atrocities and injustices that were done to Black people over the last 400 years — and use this opportunity to stand together in the fight against anti-Black racism.

You can watch the movie Race on CBC Gem now. Follow Perdita Felician on Instagram or Twitter.

A true story of Olympian Jesse Owens who went against Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. 2:26

About the Author

Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic is a producer, journalist and a perpetual optimist who loves a good show/film, breathes music, writes poetry, and dabbles in tech and innovative ways of storytelling (including through XR/VR/AR/MR). You can find her stories at cbc.ca/television and cbc.ca/comedy or follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @neptunes_blues.

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