Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens

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Jesse Owens
Event sprint & long jump
Born September 12, 1913 at Oakville, Alabama
Died March 31, 1980 at Tucson, Arizona
High School East Technical HS
College Ohio State U

James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens (1913 – 1980) was an American track and field athlete. He participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where he achieved international fame by winning four gold medals: one each in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and as part of the 4x100 meter relay team.



James Cleveland Owens was born to Henry and Emma Owens. When Owens was nine, his father moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Owens was the grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper. He was often sick with what his mother reportedly called "the devil's cold." He was given the name Jesse by a teacher in Cleveland who did not understand his country accent when the young boy said he was called J.C.

Throughout his life Owens attributed the success of his athletic career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his junior-high track coach at Fairview Junior High, who had put him on the track team (see also Harrison Dillard, a Cleveland athlete inspired by Owens). Since Owens worked in a shoe repair shop after school, 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; he equaled the world record of 9.4 seconds in the Template:Convert/LoffAoffDbSon dash and long-jumped 24 feet 9 ½ inches (7.56 m) at the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago.[1]

Ohio State

Owens attended the Ohio State University only after employment was found for his father, ensuring the family could be supported. He was affectionately known as the "Buckeye Bullet" and won a record eight individual NCAA championships, four each in 1935 and 1936. The record of four golds at the NCAA has only been equaled by Xavier Carter in 2006, although his titles also included relay medals. However, while Owens was enjoying athletic success, he had to live off-campus with other African-American athletes. When he traveled with the team, Owens could either order carry out or eat at "black-only" restaurants. Likewise, he slept in "black-only" hotels. Owens was never awarded a scholarship, so he continued to work part-time jobs to pay for school.[2]

Owens' greatest achievement came in a span of 45 minutes on May 25, 1935 at the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he set three world records and tied a fourth. He equaled the world record for the 100 yard (91 m) sprint (9.4 seconds) and set world records in the long jump (26 feet 8¼ inches (8.13 m), a world record that would last 25 years), 220 yard (201.2 m) sprint (20.7 seconds), and the 220 yard (201.2m) low hurdles (22.6 seconds to become the first person to break 23 seconds). In fact, in 2005 both NBC sports announcer Bob Costas and University of Central Florida professor of sports history Richard C. Crepeau chose this as the most impressive athletic achievement since 1850.[3]

Owens was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

Berlin Olympics

In 1936 Owens arrived in Berlin to compete for the United States in the Summer Olympics. Adolf Hitler was using the games to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany.[4] He and other government officials had high hopes German athletes would dominate the games with victories (the German athletes did indeed achieve a top of the table medal haul). Meanwhile, Nazi propaganda promoted concepts of "Aryan racial superiority" and depicted ethnic Africans as inferior[5]

Owens surprised many [6] by winning four gold medals: On August 3 1936 he won the 100m sprint, defeating Ralph Metcalfe; on August 4, the long jump (later crediting friendly and helpful advice from German competitor Luz Long[7]); on August 5, the 200m sprint; and, after he was added to the 4 x 100 m relay team, his fourth on August 9 (a performance not equaled until Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events at the 1984 Summer Olympics).

The long jump victory is documented, along with many other 1936 events, in the 1938 film Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl.

On the first day, Hitler shook hands only with the German victors and then left the stadium. Olympic committee officials then insisted Hitler greet each and every medalist or none at all. Hitler opted for the latter and skipped all further medal presentations.[8][9] On reports that Hitler had deliberately avoided acknowledging his victories, and had refused to shake his hand, Owens recounted:[10] "When I passed the Chancellor he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany." He also stated: [11] "Hitler didn't snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram." Jesse Owens was never invited to the White House nor bestowed any honors by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) or Harry S. Truman during their terms. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower acknowledged Owens' accomplishments, naming him an "Ambassador of Sports."

Owens was cheered enthusiastically by 110,000 people in Berlin's Olympic Stadium and later ordinary Germans sought his autograph when they saw him in the streets. Owens was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites, an irony at the time given that blacks in the United States were denied equal rights. After a New York ticker-tape parade in his honor, Owens had to ride the freight elevator to attend his own reception at the Waldorf-Astoria.[12]

Post Olympics

After the games had finished, Owens was invited, along with the rest of the team, to compete in Sweden. However he decided to capitalise on his success by returning to the United States to take up some of the lucrative commercial offers he was receiving. American athletic officials were furious and withdrew his amateur status, ending his career immediately. Owens was livid: "A fellow desires something for himself," he said.

With no sporting appearances to bolster his profile, the lucrative offers never quite materialized. Instead, he was forced to try to make a living as a sports promoter, essentially an entertainer. He would give local sprinters a ten or twenty yard start and beat them in the 100 yd (91 m) dash. He also challenged and defeated racehorses although as he revealed later, the trick was to race a high-strung thoroughbred horse that would be frightened by the starter's shotgun and give him a bad jump.

He soon found himself running a dry-cleaning business and then even working as a gas station attendant. He eventually filed for bankruptcy but, even then, his problems were not over and in 1966 he was successfully prosecuted for tax evasion. He started work as a U.S. 'goodwill ambassador'. Owens traveled the world and spoke to companies like the Ford Motor Company and the United States Olympic Committee. After he retired, he occupied himself by racing horses. He would always stress the importance of religion, hard work, and loyalty. In 1968, he received some criticism for supporting the 1968 Olympics Black Power Salute.

A pack-a-day smoker for 35 years, Owens died of lung cancer at age 66 in Tucson, Arizona in 1980.

A few months before his death, Owens had tried unsuccessfully to convince President Jimmy Carter not to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics, arguing that the Olympic ideal was to be a time-out from war and above politics.

Personal Life and Family

Owens and 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 throughout high school and Ruth gave birth to their first baby daughter, Gloria, in 1932. They were married in 1935 and had two more daughters: Marlene, born in 1937, and Beverly, born in 1940.[13][14]

Owen was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.


  1. Jesse Owens: Track & Field Legend: Biography. Retrieved on 2008-01-06.
  2. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named jobio2
  3. Lacey Rose, The Single Greatest Athletic Achievement November 18, 2005 published in
  4. The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936, Susan D. Bachrach, ISBN0316070874
  5. The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936, Susan D. Bachrach, ISBN0316070874
  6. The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936, Susan D. Bachrach, ISBN0316070874
  7. Schwartz, Larry (2007). Owens pierced a myth. Retrieved on 2008-08-14.
  8. Hyde Flippo, The 1936 Berlin Olympics: Hitler and Jesse Owens German Myth 10 from
  9. Rick Shenkman, Adolf Hitler, Jesse Owens and the Olympics Myth of 1936 February 13, 2002 from History News Network (article excerpted from Rick Shenkman's Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History. Publisher: William Morrow & Co; 1st ed edition (November 1988) ISBN 0688065805)
  10. The Jesse Owens Story (1970) ISBN 0399603158
  11. - quoted in Triumph, a book about the 1936 Olympics by Jeremy Schaap
  12. As quoted in "Owens pierced a myth" by Larry Schwartz in ESPN SportsCentury. (2005)
  13. Jesse Owens' Biographical Information
  14. Jesse Owens' Biographical Information

External links