JESSE OWENS was, without any doubt, one of the greatest athletes of modern times. His feats at Ohio State University (four world records on one May afternoon) and at the 1936 Olympic Games (four gold medals) took him to the pinnacle of athletic success. But, in a curious twist of history, the fame of Jesse Owens came finally to rest on something he never seemed fully to understand: the relationship of sports to international politics.

Mr. Owens was most widely known as the black American who frustrated Adolf Hitler's dream of using the 1936 Olympics to demonstrate "Aryan superiority." That is a perception of the events in Berlin that summer sharpened considerably by hindsight. As Mr. Owens said, "I wasn't running against Hitler. I was running against the world." If the contemporaneous press accounts of his feats are any guide, few athletes or others associated with the Olympics that year wholly grasped the political turn Hitler had given to international sports competition.

What Mr. Owens did realize when he came home that fall was, as he later put it, that "I still couldn't ride in the front of the bus." There was no White House reception honoring his accomplishments, and there were no lucrative advertising endorsements. He made a considerable amount of money in the next year by tap dancing with Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, running against a horse in Cuba and doing other things that today's Olympic champions would find beneath their dignity.

He worked hard for the next 30 years to survive -- leading an orchestra, running a small business, working for local governments and helping young people when he could. It was not until the last decade of his life that he reappeared as a full-fledged national hero. This status was strengthened by the recognition -- when the Olympics returned to Germany in 1972 -- that there had been something special about those games in Berlin 36 years before.

That special quality -- the link between international politics and sports -- was despised by Mr. Owens, and most other world-class athletes seem to feel that way.They want to be free to compete against each other without regard to nationality, race or political view. That's why many of them (Mr. Owens included) have opposed an American boycott of this summer's Moscow Olympics.

It is sad and ironic that the name of Jesse Owens has become so bound up with events that demonstrated the political ramifications of international sport. We prefer to remember him as the man who set 11 world records in track and field events -- one of them to stand for 45 years -- and who then spent the rest of his life trying to help young people life themselves, as he had done, from humble beginnings to glory.