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Bidding for Jesse Owens' 1936 gold medal tops $200,000

By Steve Almasy, CNN
updated 9:43 AM EST, Tue December 3, 2013
American sprinter Jesse Owens (1913 - 1980) at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, who won 4 gold medals for running and field events in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
American sprinter Jesse Owens (1913 - 1980) at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, who won 4 gold medals for running and field events in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It is unclear what happened to the other three historic medals
  • Jesse Owens gave this one to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson
  • Owens didn't reap a big endorsement deal for his triumphs in Berlin
  • Auction ends Saturday and could top $1 million

(CNN) -- It is one of the most important medals in Olympics history. In 1936 Jesse Owens won it and three others at the Berlin Games, spoiling Adolf Hitler's planned showcase of Aryan superiority.

Imagine the shock to Nazi Party elites when a black American, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of slaves, stared down fascist propaganda, bested his rivals and took home four gold medals.

Hitler was furious, but tens of thousands of ordinary Germans cheered him on.

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Owens won the 100- and 200-meter sprints, the long jump and ran the opening leg for the winning 4x100-meter U.S. relay team.

Sports Illustrated chose Owens' feat as the greatest Olympic moment of all time.

So auctioneers predict the medal will sell for more than $1 million.

"It leaves one nearly speechless to behold this medal. It survives as one of the world's most poignant symbols of triumph," the vice president of SCP Auctions, Dan Imler, said in a written statement.

No one knows where the other three original medals are, the auction house said.

As of Monday night, the online bidding had reached more than $200,000.

The medal was given by Owens to friend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson a few years after the Olympics, and the late entertainer's widow Elaine Plaines-Robinson is selling the medal, the auction house said.

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Owens wasn't able to immediately cash in on his Olympic glory. Instead of earning a living from his extraordinary athleticism, he ended up opening a dry cleaning business and occasionally raced against horses at the behest of promoters.

"People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do?" Owens once said, according to an ESPN.com article. "I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals."

Author William O. Johnson wrote in 1990 that Robinson set up Owens as the bandleader of 12-piece big band. All he had to do was introduce each song and croon some.

"Well, I couldn't play an instrument. I'd just stand up front and announce the numbers. They had me sing a little, but that was a horrible mistake. I can't carry a tune in a bucket," Johnson wrote, quoting Owens.

Owens later was able to make a good living as a public relations man and public speaker.

Robinson passed away in 1949; Owens died in 1980.

The auction closes Saturday.

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