Jesse Owens, Star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Historically, there have been many successful Olympic athletes, but few have transcended their sport in the same manner as Jesse Owens. After experiencing a childhood of brutal poverty, Owens found success on the track field in high school, college, and eventually the Olympic Games. His gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games made him a hero to millions of African-Americans. While he did not find much competitive success after those Olympic Games, Owens remained a sought-after speaker.
Born on September 12, 1913, Jesse Owens was a four-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the most celebrated track and field athletes from the United States. His specialties were the long jump and sprinting events, with his Olympic gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics coming in four events: long jump, 100 meters, 200 meters, and the 4 x 100-meter relay race. Those wins propelled him into becoming the most successful athlete at the 1936 Olympic Games.
Owens’ popularity is longstanding, with ESPN honoring him through their “Jesse Owens Award,” which is presented to the best track and field athlete of the year. ESPN also ranked Jesse Owens as the sixth best North American athlete of the 20th century. In 1983 he received a posthumous induction into the United States Olympic Committee’s Hall of Fame.
Owens success at track and field traces back to his college days at The Ohio State University. His domination at the 1935 Big Ten Track and Field Meet in Michigan saw him set three world records and tie another in “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport.”
Run as if the track is on fire.— Charles Riley, Jesse Owens' junior high school track and field coach
Born James Cleveland Owens in Oakville, Alabama, Jesse Owens was the son of Henry Cleveland Owens, a sharecropper, and Mary Emma Alexander Owens. He was the grandson of slaves.
Some may find it hard to believe, but Owens was a frail young boy who struggled with several illnesses over the years. He went through periods of chronic bronchial congestion and pneumonia before his teen years. Despite being sickly, Owens had to work in the fields with the rest of his family, and he often spent hours picking up cotton from the fields.
When he was only five years old, Owens had a large fibrous bump on his chest. It pressed against his lungs, but his family could not afford a doctor at the time. Instead, his mother used a kitchen knife to carve open his chest and remove the gold-ball like growth. He lost a lot of blood during the procedure, but he survived.
The Owens family often struggled to make ends meet in the rural south. After one of their daughters moved to Cleveland during the First World War, Mary Owens urged her husband to move to the North, which promised higher wages, better work, and less hostility towards African-Americans.
Owens had six brothers and three sisters. His family was part of the “Great Migration” of the early 1920s—an event that saw more than a million African-Americans leave the segregated Southern states.
Jesse Owens’ father and three older brothers worked at a local steel mill in Cleveland, with the family living in a modest apartment in the east-side with other economically disadvantaged families. Owens picked up a new name when in Cleveland. Given his difficult-to-understand Southern accent, whenever he said “J.C.” his teachers thought he meant “Jesse.” From that moment onward, James Cleveland Owens became Jesse Owens.
One of his first jobs involved delivering groceries and loading freight cars. He even helped out at a local shoe repair shop. His various part-time jobs helped Owens realize that his true passion involved running. Even in his later years, Owens always credited most of his success to his track and field coach in junior high, Charles Riley. Having to work at the shoe repair shop, Owens was unable to make the team’s usual track practices. Instead of cutting him from the team, Riley allowed Owens to practice early in the morning.
Riley knew immediately that Owens was a track athlete with tremendous potential. Despite not having any serious training, Owens was remarkably quick. Riley started Owens on a rigorous program and the results were immediate. Owens ran the 100-yard dash in eleven seconds by 1928 and he set two world records, for his age group, in the high jump (six feet) and long jump (22 feet).
Riley famously told Owens to “run as if the track is on fire.” The two had a great relationship that extended beyond the sport. With Owens’ father going through tough times in the early 1930s, Riley served as a surrogate father towards him.
In addition to his love of track and field, Owens met the love of his life in junior high. Jesse met Minnie Ruth Soloman at the age of 15. They began dating on and off during high school and had a daughter in 1932. They eventually married in 1935 and had two more daughters in 1939 and 1940 respectively.
While there were allegations of Jesse Owens’ infidelity over the years, with some reports even claiming he had an illegitimate child, his relationship with his wife relationship never wavered. The two remained together until Owens passed away in 1980. Minnie Owens passed away in 2001.
Rising Star in High School
Owens first came to the attention of a national track and field audience at the East Technical High School. He did not make the national team while trying out for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, but he achieved stardom for his performance at the 1933 National Interscholastic Championships in Chicago. He match the world record in the 100 yard dash (9.4 seconds). He also managed to long jump 9.5 inches at the same event, along with winning the 220-yard dash event. A parade awaited him when he returned to Cleveland following the event. His high school career saw him compete in 79 races. He won 75 of those events.
Despite Owens failing to complete the required courses to earn a high school diploma, more than 12 colleges attempted to recruit him for their programs. But he was reluctant to leave his family, who needed his financial support to stay afloat. However, a school helped find better employment for his father, and Owens went to college knowing his family was no longer struggling.
He enrolled at The Ohio State University, where he went from strength to strength. That is not to say Owens did not experience difficulty during those years. He worked three jobs just to afford his tuition, and he experienced a great deal of racism at Ohio State. Owens worked as a waiter, gas pumper, a night elevator operator, and at the library stacks. He even spent some time working as a page for the Ohio Statehouse.
Owens never forgot to send money back to his family and his girlfriend. He still managed to find time for his studies and, of course, his daily track practices. He did not let financial or personal struggles impact his goals. The racism of others only made his determination to succeed even greater. At times, he struggled with his academics, with the school putting him on academic probation. He eventually left Ohio State in 1941 without a degree.
Owens' overall college record saw him win eight individual NCAA Championships, four in 1935 and four in 1936. His record of four gold medals stood until 2006, when Xavier Carter equaled it. Despite his brilliant track and field career, Owens was not always welcomed by the Ohio State student body. He lived off campus with other African-Americans and had to stay at “black-only” hotels and eat at “black-only” restaurants when the team traveled for away games or national meets. In all his years at Ohio State, he barely received any scholarship money.
His best college year came in 1935, when he won four NCAA Championship events, two AAU Championship events and three Olympic trials. His overall record in 1935 was a perfect 42 wins in 42 events. The broad jump record he set that day (26 feet and 8.25 inches) stood for 25 years.
Owens served as the first African-American captain of any Ohio State varsity sports team. His teammates affectionately called him the “Buckeye Bullet.” He was also a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
To this day, college athletics fans remember his brilliance at the 1935 Big Ten meet at Michigan, Ann Arbor. In a 45-minute time span, he tied the 100-yard dash record, set the long jump, 220-yard sprint and 220-yard low hurdles records.
His college coach thought he was such a complete athlete that he sometimes “seems to float over the ground when he runs.” When asked to pick the greatest athletic achievement of the past 150 years in 2006, the University of Central Florida’s professor of sports history, Richard Crepeau, chose Jesse Owens at the 1935 Big Ten meet. Ohio State’s current track and field stadium is named the Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium.
1936 Berlin Olympics
Jesse Owens continued his sensational college form onto a worldwide stage at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. On August 3rd, Owens won the 100-meter sprint in 10.3 seconds, beating his teammate Ralph Metcalfe, as well as Tinus Osendarp of the Netherlands. He finished one-tenth and two-tenths ahead of them, respectively. A day later, his long jump of 26 feet and five inches took home another gold medal. He credits Luz Long, his German rival, for offering him advice that led to the win. His time of 20.7 seconds was good enough to win the 200 meter sprint event, while he also took home gold at the 4 x 100 meter sprint relay. Owens and his three teammates set a world record of 39.8 seconds.
Owens’ long jump record of 26 feet and eight inches was set a year before these games. This record stood for 25 years, with Ralph Boston beating it at the 1960 Summer Olympics, where Owens was a proud spectator.
Owens was the first American track and field athlete to win four gold medals at the same Olympic Games. This record stood until the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles, when Carl Lewis matched it. The record has since been beaten a few times, but Owens is still remembered as one of the country’s greatest ever track and field athletes.
He was a great competitor, but Owens was also a very good sport. During the 1936 long jump final, Owens took time out of his preparations to massage the leg of his German rival Long. Owens said he could never forget the friendship shown to him by Lang. “It took a lot of courage for him [Lang] to befriend me with Hitler watching. You can melt down all the medals I have and they wouldn’t compare to the 24-karat friendship I felt with him [Lang] in that moment. It was sad that I never saw him again. He died in World War II.”
1936 Olympic Games
The 1936 Olympic Games were a seminal moment not only for Owens but for African-American athletes in general. He games were held in Berlin, with Adolf Hitler at the height of his power at the time. Hilter promoted these games as a world-wide event that would solidify his theory of Aryan supremacy. The German government believed their athletes would dominate the games, with their propaganda constantly promoting athletes of African descent as inferior to Aryans.
The German leader was furious when he learned that the United States planned to include black athletes in their Olympic roster. When the first day of the Games arrived, Hitler shook hands only with the German winners and ignored the participants from other countries. The Olympic Committee did not approve, and they told him to either skip the ceremonies or shake hands with every winner. Hitler chose to skip every other medal presentation.
It is famously stated that Hitler walked out of the Olympic stadium when Owens won the gold medal at the 100-meter dash event. However, some historians believe Hitler later congratulated Owens on his victories. For his part, Owens commented that “I was on my way to a broadcast after winning and I passed his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I believe it was bad taste to criticize ‘the man of the hour’ in Germany.” Eric Brown, a British fighter pilot, claimed he witnessed Hitler shaking hands with Owens.
Even the great performances of Owens and other African-American athletes did not change Hitler’s perception of them. He was “annoyed by their serious of triumphs” and believe their physiques were “stronger than those of civilized whites and they should not compete in future Olympic Games.”
Owens and the rest of the United States team arrived in Berlin in 1936. His teammates would never forget the fanfare associated with Owens’ arrival. According to James LuValle, another American medal winner, many young women came to greet the team and continuously chanted “wo ist Jesse,” which means “where is Jesse.” He even had to travel outside the athletics village with a military escort to ensure fans did not get too close.
A few days before the competition started, Jesse Owens met with Adi Dassler, the founder of Adidas, one of the most famous athletics companies in the world. Dassler urged Owens to accept a sponsorship from his company, which was the first for a male African-American athlete. Owens wore Adidas’ Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes during the games.
Ironically it was the African-American athletes who took center stage for the United States at those Olympics. The country won 11 gold medals in 1936, with six of them earned by black athletes. Owens was the stand out athlete by a country mile, winning four golds and breaking two Olympic golds for good measure.
While at the Games, Owens was permitted to stay in the same hotels as his white teammates. This was not the case in the United States at the time. In fact, Owens had to ride a freight elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel to attend a reception in his honor because African-Americans were not allowed on the regular elevator.
The racism and seclusion policies of Hitler’s Germany were a widespread topic throughout the 1936 Olympic Games. However, Owens was hardly a national celebrity when he came back to the United States following his wins. The President at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, did not meet with Owens to congratulate him, even though it was a long-standing tradition for Presidents to do so. In fact, it took forty years before Owens received the appropriate recognition from President Gerald Ford. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
For his part, Owens remained unperturbed by the hypocrisy of the United States. “When I came back to my country [the United States], even after all the stories about [Adolf] Hitler, I was not allowed to ride at the front of the bus,” he noted. “I was asked to go through the back door. I could not even live where I wanted. Hitler may not have invited me to shake hands with him, but neither did the President [of the United States].”
After the Olympics, the current Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon asked Owens to help him win over African-American voters. At two separate rallies, Owens noted that “Hitler did not snub me. It was the President [of the United States] who was too busy to send me a message of congratulations or even a telegram.”
The battles that count aren’t the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself—the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us—that’s where it’s at.— Jesse Owens
Life After the Olympics
Owens was always a champion of the people. He never stopped working with youths and was happy to use his stardom and modest wealth to help those without the means to help themselves. With Owens living in a time when lucrative post-Olympic sponsorships were not the norm, he found various jobs to support his family.
One of his jobs involved participating in stunt races against dogs or horses during the half-time intermission of local soccer and baseball games. Owens began the races 40 yards ahead of his competition and raced to the 100-yard line. He usually won the events, but people felt it was degrading for an Olympic athlete to compete in such silliness. Owens fired back, saying “it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against an animal, but what was I to do? I had four gold medals, but you cannot eat those medals.”
He also served as a running coach for the New York Mets in 1965. However, his time there was unsuccessful, with the team only stealing 28 bases that year. They finished in last place.
Owens' favorite job involved working as playground director in Cleveland. It was the first time he got to work with the city’s underprivileged youth. When he moved to Chicago, he continued this work and served as a board member of the Chicago Boys’ Club.
Public speaking was another one of Owens’ passions. He addressed youth groups, professional companies and organizations, civic meetings, banquets, parent-teacher-associations, and black history groups. He also attended and spoke at a number of high school and college commencement ceremonies. Owens also spent time as a PR representative for Ford and the United States Olympic Committee.
Aside from the award given to him by President Gerald Ford in 1976, he visited the White House in 1979 to meet with President Jimmy Carter and accept the Living Legend Award. President Carter had this to say on Jesse Owens: “This is a young man who didn’t even realize the nature of his own capabilities. He went to the Olympics and performed in a way that is unmatched since. Since those games, he has continued in his own modest way to inspire others to reach for greatness.”
Owens passed away in March 1980 in Tucson, Arizona. He suffered complications from lung cancer. The whole world paid tribute to this remarkable athlete and person, with President Carter saying, “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry.” After his death, his three daughters continued Owens' work through the Jesse Owens Foundation. They offer financial assistance and other services to young people with untapped potential.
Schaap, Jeremy. Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics. A Mariner book, Houghton Mifflin Company. 2007.
West, Doug. Jesse Owens, Adolf Hitler and the 1936 Summer Olympics. C&D Publications. 2016.