Jesse Owens achieved what no Olympian before him had accomplished, and was recognized in his lifetime as “perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history”. His achievement of setting three world records and tying another in less than an hour at the 1935 Big Ten track meet has been called “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport” and has never been equaled. However, it was Owen’s stunning achievement at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, that won him international fame. In a blaze of glory Owens won four gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4×100 meter relay. He was the most successful athlete at the games and as such has been credited with single-handedly destroying Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.
Jesse Owens, the seventh child of Henry and Emma Alexander Owens, was named James Cleveland when he was born in Alabama on September 12, 1913. “J.C.”, as he was called, was nine when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where his new schoolteacher gave him the name that was to become known around the world. The teacher was told “J.C.” when she asked his name to enter in her roll book, but she thought he said “Jesse”. The name stuck and he would be known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.
“I always loved running – it was something you could do by yourself and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.”
As a boy, Owens took different jobs in his spare time: he delivered groceries, loaded freight cars and worked in a shoe repair shop while his father and older brother worked at a steel mill. During this period, Owens realized that he had a passion for running. Since Owens worked in a shoe repair shop after school, his track coach at Fairmount Junior High School, Charles Riley allowed him to practice before school instead.
Owens first came to national attention when he was a student of East Technical High School in Cleveland. During his high school days, he won all of the major track events, including the Ohio state championship three consecutive years. At the National Interscholastic meet in Chicago, during his senior year, he set a new high school world record by running the 100 yard dash in 9.4 seconds to tie the accepted world record, and he created a new high school world record in the 220 yard dash by running the distance in 20.7 seconds. A week earlier he had set a new world record in the long jump by jumping 24 feet 11 3/4 inches.
Owens’ sensational high school track career resulted in him being recruited by dozens of colleges. However, he chose the Ohio State University, even though OSU could not offer a track scholarship at the time. To support himself and his young wife, Ruth, he worked at a number of different part-time jobs. (Owens met, his wife Minnie Ruth Solomon met at Fairmount Junior High School in Cleveland when he was 15 years old and she was 13 years old. They dated steadily through high school. Ruth gave birth to their first daughter, Gloria, in 1932. They married in 1935 and had two more daughters together: Marlene, born in 1939, and Beverly, born in 1940. They remained married until his death.)
While working as a night elevator operator, a waiter, gas attendant, and serving a stint as a page in the Ohio Statehouse, Owens continued to practice and set records on the field in intercollegiate competition. He won a record eight individual NCAA championships, four each in 1935 and 1936. (The record of four gold medals at the NCAA was equaled only by Xavier Carter in 2006, although his many titles also included relay medals.) Though Owens enjoyed athletic success, he had to live off campus with other African-American athletes. When he traveled with the team, Owens was restricted to ordering carry-out or eating at “black-only” restaurants.
Owens gave the world a preview of things to come in Berlin, while at the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935. In a span of 45 minutes he set three world records and tied a fourth. He equaled the world record for the 100 yard dash (9.4 seconds); and set world records in the long jump (26 ft 8 1⁄4 in or 8.13 m, a world record that would last 25 years); 220-yard (201.2 m) sprint (20.3 seconds); and 220-yard (201.2m) low hurdles (22.6 seconds, becoming the first to break 23 seconds). Owens achieved these athletic feats while suffering from a sore back as a result from a fall down a flight of stairs. He had convinced his coach to allow him to run the 100-yard dash as a test for his back, and amazingly Owens recorded an official time of 9.4 seconds. Despite the pain, he then went on to participate in three other events, setting a world record in each event.
Owens’ success at the 1935 championships gave him the confidence that he was ready to excel at the highest level. He entered the 1936 Olympics, which were held in Nazi Germany. Adolph Hitler, the Nazi leader, had said that the Germans were a “master race.” Many Germans believe that Germany should rule the world and that the Olympic games would prove they were right. Hitler and other government officials had high hopes that German athletes would dominate the games with victories. While Nazi propaganda promoted concepts of “Aryan racial superiority,” they also depicted Africans as inferior.
“For a time, at least, I was the most famous person in the entire world.”
Owens countered Hitler’s racist ideology by becoming the first American track & field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad.
On August 3, he won the 100m sprint with a time of 10.3s, defeating teammate college friend Ralph Metcalfe by a tenth of a second and defeating Tinus Osendarp of the Netherlands by two tenths of a second.
On August 4, he won the long jump with a leap of 26 ft 5 in (later crediting his achievement to the technical advice he received from Luz Long, the German competitor whom he defeated).
On August 5, he won the 200m sprint with a time of 20.7s, defeating Mack Robinson (the older brother of Jackie Robinson).
On August 9, Owens won his fourth gold medal in the 4×100 sprint relay when coach Dean Cromwell replaced Jewish-American sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller with Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, who teamed with Frank Wykoff and Foy Draper to set a world record of 39.8s in the event.
This remarkable achievement stood unequaled until the Soviet-boycotted 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, when Carl Lewis matched Jesse’s feat. Although others have gone on to win more gold medals than Owens, he remains the best remembered Olympic athlete because he achieved what no Olympian before or since has accomplished. During a time of deep-rooted segregation, he not only discredited Hitler’s master race theory, but also affirmed that individual excellence, rather than race or national origin, distinguishes one man from another.
On reports that Hitler had deliberately avoided acknowledging his victories, and had refused to shake his hand, Owens later remarked that “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
In a 2009 interview, Siegfried Mischner, a German journalist, claimed that Owens carried around a photograph in his wallet of the Führer shaking his hand before the latter left the stadium. Owens, who felt the newspapers of the day reported ‘unfairly’ on Hitler’s attitude towards him, tried to get Mischner and his journalist colleagues to change the accepted version of history in the 1960s. Mischner claimed Owens showed him the photograph and told him: “That was one of my most beautiful moments.” Mischner added “[the picture] was taken behind the honour stand and so not captured by the world’s press. But I saw it, I saw him shaking Hitler’s hand!” According to Mischner, “the predominating opinion in post-war Germany was that Hitler had ignored Owens, so we therefore decided not to report on the photo. The consensus was that Hitler had to continue to be painted in a bad light in relation to Owens.” For some time, Mischner’s assertion was not confirmed independently of his own account,and Mischner himself admitted in Mail Online that “All my colleagues are dead, Owens is dead. I thought this was the last chance to set the record straight. I have no idea where the photo is or even if it exists still.”
However, in 2014, Eric Brown, British fighter pilot and test pilot, the Fleet Air Arm’s most decorated living pilot, independently stated in a BBC documentary “I actually witnessed Hitler shaking hands with Jesse Owens and congratulating him on what he had achieved.” Additionally, an article in The Baltimore Sun in August 1936 reported that Hitler sent Owens a commemorative inscribed cabinet photograph of himself.
“After I came home from the 1936 Olympics with my four medals, it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job.”
After the games had finished, the Olympic team and Owens were all invited to compete in Sweden. Owens decided to capitalize on his success by returning to the United States to take up some of the more lucrative commercial offers. United States athletic officials were furious and withdrew his amateur status, ending his career immediately. Owens was angry, saying, “A fellow desires something for himself.”
Prohibited from amateur sporting appearances to bolster his profile, Owens found the commercial offers all but disappeared. In 1946, he joined Abe Saperstein in the formation of the West Coast Baseball Association (WCBA), a new Black baseball league; Owens was Vice-President and the owner of the Portland (Oregon) Rosebuds franchise. He toured with the Rosebuds, sometimes entertaining the audience in between doubleheader games by competing in races against horses. The WCBA disbanded after only two months.
Owens then tried to make a living as a sports promoter. He also ran a dry cleaning business and worked as a gas station attendant to earn a living; he eventually filed for bankruptcy. In 1966, he was prosecuted for tax evasion. Eventually, the government appointed him as a US goodwill ambassador.
“We all have dreams. In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort.”
Owens traveled widely as a highly sought after speaker. He addressed youth groups, professional organizations, civic meetings, sports banquets, PTAs, church organizations, brotherhood and black history programs, as well as high school and college commencements and ceremonies. He was also a public relations representative and consultant to many corporations, including Atlantic Richfield, Ford and the United States Olympic Committee.
In 1976, Owens was awarded the highest civilian honor in the United States when President Gerald Ford presented him with the Medal of Freedom in front of the members of the U.S. Montreal Olympic team in attendance. In February, 1979, he returned to the White House, where President Carter presented him with the Living Legend Award.
Jesse Owens died from complications due to lung cancer on March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona. Although words of sorrow, sympathy and admiration poured in from all over the world, perhaps President Carter said it best when he stated:
“Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans.”
Owens was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush.
“She (Minnie Ruth Solomon) was unusual because even though I knew her family was as poor as ours, nothing she said or did seemed touched by that. Or by prejudice. Or by anything the world said or did. It was as if she had something inside her that somehow made all that not count. I fell in love with her some the first time we ever talked, and a little bit more every time after that until I thought I couldn’t love her more than I did. And when I felt that way, I asked her to marry me… and she said she would.”
Owen was survived by his wife and three daughters. His daughters have honored his legacy in managing the Jesse Owens Foundation. The Foundation provides financial assistance, support, and services to young individuals with untapped potential in order to develop their talents, broaden their horizons, and become better citizens.