The most famous athlete of his time, his stunning triumph at the 1936 Olympic Games captivated the world even as it infuriated the Nazis. Despite the racial slurs he endured, Jesse Owens’ grace and athleticism rallied crowds across the globe. But when the four-time Olympic gold medalist returned home, he could not even ride in the front of a bus.
In 1936 African American sprinter Jesse Owens amazed the world by breaking Olympic records and winning four gold medals in Berlin, the headquarters of Hitler’s Nazi regime. However, in classic Olympic fashion, Owens became known not only for his athletic triumphs, but for his epic embrace with Aryan German competitor Luz Long and for the social barriers he broke down in the face of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Rather than protesting “Hitler’s Games,” Owens used his position in the spotlight to display the greatness and compassion that can be achieved outside of the political and cultural constraints of society.
James Cleveland Owens was the youngest of ten children, three girls and seven boys, born to Henry Cleveland Owens and Mary Emma Fitzgerald in Oakville, Alabama on September 12, 1913. J.C., as he was called, was nine years old when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio for better opportunities, as part of the Great Migration, when 1.5 million African Americans left the segregated South. When his new teacher asked his name (to enter in her roll book), he said “J.C.”, but because of his strong Southern accent, she thought he said “Jesse”. The name took, and he was known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.
As a boy and youth, 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. Throughout his life, Owens attributed the success of his athletic career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his junior high track coach at Fairmount Junior High School. 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 equalled the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard (91 m) dash and long-jumped 24 feet 9 1⁄2 inches (7.56 metres) at the 1933 National High School Championship inChicago.
Owens attended Ohio State University after employment was found for his father, ensuring the family could be supported. Affectionately known as the “Buckeye bullet,” Owens 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. Similarly, he had to stay at “blacks-only” hotels. Owens did not receive a scholarship for his efforts, so he continued to work part-time jobs to pay for school.
Owens’s greatest achievement came in a span of 45 minutes on May 25, 1935, during the Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where 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 thelong jump (26 ft 8 1⁄4 in/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).In 2005, NBC sports announcer Bob Costas and University of Central Floridaprofessor of sports history Richard C. Crepeau both chose these wins on one day as the most impressive athletic achievement since 1850.
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. He and other government officials had high hopes that German athletes would dominate the games with victories (the German athletes achieved a “top of the table” medal haul). Meanwhile, Nazi propaganda promoted concepts of “Aryan racial superiority” and depictedethnic Africans as inferior.
Owens surprised manyby 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 Luz Long, the German competitor he ultimately defeated); on August 5, the 200m sprint; and, after he was added to the 4 x 100 m relay team, following a request by the Germans to replace a Jewish-American sprinter, he won his fourth on August 9 (a performance not equaled until Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events at the 1984 Summer Olympics).
Just before the competitions, Owens was visited in the Olympic village by Adi Dassler, the founder of the Adidas athletic shoe company. He persuaded Owens to use Adidas shoes, the first sponsorship for a male African-American athlete.
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 insisted Hitler greet every medalist or none at all. Hitler opted for the latter and skipped all further medal presentations. On reports that Hitler had deliberately avoided acknowledging his victories, and had refused to shake his hand, Owens said at the time:
“Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave”. “It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was ‘bad taste’ to criticize the man of the hour in another country”.
Away from the public eye, Hitler expressed his true feelings and disgust at Owens. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and later war armaments minister, later recollected:
Each of the German victories, and there were a surprising number of these, made him happy, but he was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.
Owens was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites, while at the time blacks in many parts of the United States were denied equal rights. After a New York City ticker-tape parade of Fifth Avenue in his honor, Owens had to ride the freight elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria to reach the reception honoring him.
Owens said, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” On the other hand, Hitler sent Owens a commemorative inscribed cabinet photograph of himself. Jesse Owens was never invited to the White House nor were honors bestowed upon him by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) or his successor Harry S. Truman during their terms. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower honored Owens by naming him an “Ambassador of Sports.”
In August 2009, the Daily Telegraph found a German sports reporter, Siegfried Mischner then aged 83, who claimed that Owens had shown him a photograph of Hitler shaking his hand after the 100 meters event, behind the stadium’s honor stand. There is no independent confirmation of this.
He was quoted saying the secret behind his success was “I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible. From the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up.”
After the games had finished, the Olympic team and Owens were all invited to compete in Sweden. He 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 Negro 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 helped promote the exploitation film Mom and Dad in black neighborhoods. He tried 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; as he revealed later, the trick was to race a high-strung thoroughbredthat would be frightened by the starter’s shotgun and give him a bad jump. Owens said, “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
Owens 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 successfully prosecuted for tax evasion. At rock bottom, he was aided in beginning rehabilitation. The government appointed him a US goodwill ambassador. Owens traveled the world and spoke to companies such as the Ford Motor Companyand stakeholders such as the United States Olympic Committee. After he retired, he owned racehorses.
Owens refused to support the black power salute by African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics. He told them:
The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers – weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. There’s where the power lies.
Four years later in his 1972 book I Have Changed, he moderated his opinion:
I realised now that militancy in the best sense of the word was the only answer where the black man was concerned, that any black man who wasn’t a militant in 1970 was either blind or a coward.
A few months before his death, Owens had tried unsuccessfully to convince President Jimmy Carter not to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He argued that the Olympic ideal was to be a time-out from war and above politics.