Jesse Owens "Race"
Focus Films

Stephan James discusses playing Jesse Owens in ‘Race’

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NEW YORK — Stephan James feels like a member of the Owens family after submerging himself in research, training and learning from the daughters and granddaughters of legendary Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens for the film “Race,” which hits theaters Feb. 19.

James, a 22-year-old Canadian, said he spent two months doing track workouts at Georgia Tech ahead of film shooting, partially at the Berlin Olympic Stadium, site of the 1936 Games where Owens won four gold medals in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

James also worked with Hank Palmer, a Canadian Olympic 4x100m relay sprinter at Beijing 2008.

James sat down with OlympicTalk at the NYRR Millrose Games Trials at The Armory in Manhattan on Wednesday afternoon.

OlympicTalk: What was your initial reaction when you found out you would be playing Jesse Owens?

JAMES: I was speechless, just like I am every time I’m reminded that I’ve done it. When you get a call to audition to play one of the greatest athletes ever, somebody who’s a hero the world over, it’s an incredible opportunity. Obviously, I was extremely elated.

OlympicTalk: How did you research for the role?

JAMES: You look at 1936 and that whole time, there’s not a whole lot documented from Jesse, or from that time. Luckily enough, a filmmaker named Leni Riefenstahl made a film about the 1936 Games called “Olympia”. So I was able to use that, sort of, in my research and some other clips I had seen of Jesse speaking in interviews after his races, so I could get a feel of the type of person he was, how he spoke, how he carried himself. Like I said, 1936, there’s only so many YouTube clips you can find on his running. But I took all that I could, along with my training regimen.

Leni Riefenstahl was fascinated with Jesse, so he was prominently featured over the course of the film.

Editor’s Note: Angelina Jolie also made use of “Olympia” in researching for “Unbroken,” the 2014 film on 1936 U.S. Olympic runner Louis Zamperini. More from OlympicTalk’s interview with Jolie here.

OlympicTalk: What interaction did you have with Owens’ family?

JAMES: [Owens’ daughters] have been instrumental in the whole film-making process, pretty much from the beginning. They were helpful in telling me about the type of man their father was, what type of father he was, so I could get a feel for him. We spent a lot of time together. They hung out on set when we were out in Berlin shooting. Even now, we still hang out. We’re like a family. I’m like a part of the Owens family, honorary member.

OlympicTalk: What was the most interesting part of filming in Berlin?

JAMES: Just to go there, honestly, and see how many people still remembered and loved Jesse. You go into the Olympic Stadium, which is still there, and you go onto the floor, and they’ve got a lounge called the Jesse Owens Lounge on the third floor, and his photos are just all over the place. The street that the stadium is on is called Jesse Owens Allee.

OlympicTalk: Did you have any background in track and field?

JAMES: Not really, no. I’ve been an athlete, basketball and volleyball. I’m familiar with athletics, but track and field is something I had to really dig my feet into and then learn how to do things like how Jesse did it specifically, a whole ‘nother ball game.

OlympicTalk: What were Owens’ daughters reactions after they saw the film?

JAMES: They were lovely and gracious, and they told me that they really admired the way that I portrayed their father. To me, that means the most. Jesse’s obviously not here to see the film, but to have his daughters there and have them react and accept the film the way they have, it’s been wonderful.

OlympicTalk: You’re obviously an Owens expert now. Tell me something track fans might not know about him.

JAMES: Jesse’s so much bigger than an athlete. I tell people that all the time. When I first took on this role, I approached it from a really human perspective, because I wanted to show people the type of humanitarian he was. Very, very loving human being and a person who always treated people as he wanted to be treated. Other than that, he loved to dress. He was very fashionable. He loved to get dressed up and to smell good. That’s something I learned from his daughters.

MORE: Watch full ‘Race’ trailer

Kyla Ross, Madison Kocian come forward as Larry Nassar survivors

Kyla Ross, Madison Kocian
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Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian said they are survivors of Larry Nassar‘s sexual abuse, making it seven out of eight gymnasts between the last two Olympic champion teams to come forward.

Ross, a 2012 Olympian, and Kocian, a 2016 Olympian, spoke at “CBS This Morning” on Thursday.

“It was such a normalized thing that, between us, we didn’t think any different of it,” Kocian said. “We were told that it was a medical procedure. A lot of us had back injuries or hamstring injuries. That was our only option because he was our team doctor. That was our only avenue to accomplish our Olympic dreams. So, if we were to speak up, you probably wouldn’t have been in consideration for making that team.”

Ross said she wants an apology from USA Gymnastics.

“At first, hearing all the news about Larry, I really was in denial of it ever happening to me,” she said. “When I was 13, when it first happened to me, I believed that it was a legitimate form of treatment, but as the years have gone on and hearing all the impact statements of all the girls that have come forward already, I’ve realized that it was something terrible that happened to us.”

Previously, all of Ross’ London Olympic teammates said they are survivors — Gabby DouglasMcKayla MaroneyAly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber. And three of Kocian’s four Rio Olympic teammates — Simone Biles, Douglas and Raisman.

“It was almost like a family member, and on international trips he would bring us food or he would just kind of be the person that would always ask how are you doing, because the culture that was at the Karolyi ranch was a culture of fear, a culture of silence,” Kocian said. “That’s what let him to be able to abuse us.”

Ross and Kocian are rising juniors on UCLA’s gymnastics team. They are not competing on the elite level and thus not entered in this week’s U.S. Gymnastics Championships.

Ross earned world all-around silver and bronze medals in 2013 and 2014. Kocian is an Olympic uneven bars silver medalist and 2015 World champion on bars.

“USA Gymnastics’ support is unwavering for Kyla, Madison and all athletes who courageously came forward to share their experiences,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement, according to CBS. “Their powerful voices and stories will continue to be a basis for our future decisions.”

Nassar, 55, will likely never get out of prison. Once his 60-year federal term for child porn possession ends, he would begin serving the 40- to 175-year sentence in state prison after at least 169 women and girls provided statements in his January sentencing.

Athletes accused him of sexually abusing them under the guise of medical treatment, including while he worked for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Yelena Shushunova, 1988 Olympic all-around champion, dies at 49

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Yelena Shushunova, the 1988 Olympic all-around champion, died Thursday at age 49, according to Russia’s gymnastics federation.

Shushunova died of complications from pneumonia, a Russia gymnastics federation official said, according to TASS.

Shushunova earned two golds, a silver and a bronze at the Seoul 1988 Games at age 19. She beat Romanian Daniela Silivas by .025 of a point in the all-around, needing and scoring a 10 on her final apparatus on vault.

Shushunova and Silivas each tallied seven 10s at those Games, matching Nadia Comaneci‘s record from the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Shushunova also earned 11 medals between the 1985 and 1987 World Championships in one of the most impressive Olympic cycles for a gymnast.

She made the Soviet national team in time for the 1984 Olympics, but the nation boycotted the Los Angeles Games.