March 06, 2019 6 min read

James Cleveland ‘Jesse’ Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama on September 12th 1913 and his performances in 1935 and 1936 submitted his name to athletics history. Accolades come no higher than The Jesse Owens Award, which is USA Track and Field's award for the year's best track and field athlete.

The nickname ‘Jesse’ stayed with him from childhood, when his new teacher asked him his name and he replied ‘JC’, which she mistook for ‘Jesse’. He was the seventh child born to Henry Cleveland Owens and Mary Emma Fitzgerald. As part of the so-called 'great migration', the Owens family moved to Cleveland, Ohio when Jesse was nine, where he attended Fairmont Junior High School.

While there, the track coach Charles Riley encouraged him to develop his athletics talents. Owens met his wife, Ruth, at the same school, when he was fifteen and 'Minnie' thirteen. They spent the rest of their lives together after marrying in 1935.

Owens’ impressive showing in an athletics meeting in 1928, where he set Junior High School records in the high jump and the running broad jump, now known as the long jump, brought his achievements to public notice for the first time. Owens was twenty years old when he competed in the national High School Championship in Chicago in 1933 where he equaled the world record in the 100-yard (91m) sprint. At the same meeting he recorded a Long Jump of 24 feet 9 1/2 inches (7.56m).

Owens' high school track career resulted in him being recruited by many colleges and he decided on Ohio State University, although with no offer of a track scholarship. He had to take various jobs to support himself and Ruth. At OSU Owens won eight individual NCAA championships, four each in 1935 and 1936, under the coaching of Larry Snyder.

At the Big Ten meeting at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan in May 1935 Owens set three world records and equalled a fourth, on a day when he was suffering from a sore back as a result of falling down a flight of stairs, but managed to persuade his coach to let him compete in the 100-yard dash as a test for his back, and he recorded an official time of 9.4 seconds, equaling the world record.

He then went on to participate in three other events, setting a world record in each one, in the Long Jump clearing 26 feet 8 1/4 inches (8.13m), which remained unbroken until 1960, when Owens watched compatriot Ralph Boston beat his record and win Gold at the Rome Olympics.In the 220 yards sprint Owens finished in 20.3 seconds and the 220 yard Low Hurdles in 22.6 seconds.

In December of the same year, with the Berlin Olympics of 1936 fast approaching, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People considered dissuading Owens from taking part, given what black people had suffered in the USA. The movement gained momentum in favour of boycotting the Games, with Owens lending his support to the view that the USA shouldn’t take part if racial discrimination was being practiced in Germany, but the charge that this was ‘un-American’ by the president of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, convinced Owens and his fellow athletes to attend the Games.

Owens’ fame had preceded him as sports shoe history was made when before the event began, Adi Dassler, founder of the Adidas athletic shoe company, persuaded Owens to wear Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik running spikes for the Games. On August 3, he won the 100 metres Final in 10.3 seconds and a day later the Long Jump at 8.06 m (26 ft 5 in), for which he famously thanked his German competitor, Luz Long, who had advised him on his take-off position on the track. Owens and Long remained lifelong friends.

On August 5, he won a third Gold, in the 200 metres, in 20.7 seconds, and on August 9, his fourth Gold came in the 4 × 100 metres relay in which he only joined the team, with Ralph Metcalfe, through the withdrawal of the Jewish-American athletes Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller by the US head coach. Owens, Metcalfe, Draper and Wykoff went on to set a world record of 39.8 seconds.

Adolph Hitler’s decision not to congratulate medal winners in public was generously received by Owens, who recounted that ‘He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the "man of the hour" in another country.' The dormitory that Owens occupied in the Berlin Olympic village has been restored into a museum and includes photos of him at the Games, and a letter from a fan urging him not to shake hands with Hitler. In 2014, British fighter pilot Eric Brown recalled witnessing ‘..Hitler shaking hands with Jesse Owens and congratulating him on what he had achieved.’

On his return to the USA, Owens addressed an audience of African Americans at a Republican rally in Kansas City and said, ‘Hitler didn't snub me, it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram.’ President Franklin D. Roosevelt hadn’t invited Jesse Owens to the White House following the Berlin Games. When Owens accepted some of the endorsement offers made to him following Berlin, United States athletic officials withdrew his amateur status, which immediately ended his career.

Owens argued that the racial discrimination he had faced throughout his athletic career, such as not being eligible for scholarships in college meant he had to give up on amateur athletics in pursuit of financial gain elsewhere. Owens took jobs as a gas station attendant, playground janitor, and manager of a dry cleaning firm. He also raced against amateurs and horses for cash. He was prohibited from making appearances at amateur sporting events to raise his profile, so that the commercial offers all but disappeared.

In 1937, he toured with a twelve-piece jazz band under contract with Consolidated Artists and made appearances at baseball games and other events. In 1942 Owens started work in Detroit at Ford Motor Company, where he worked until 1946, when he and Abe Saperstein formed the West Coast Negro Baseball League, with Owens Vice-President and owner of the Portland (Oregon) Rosebuds franchise. In its brief two-month existence Owens toured with the Rosebuds, sometimes entertaining the audience by competing in races against horses.

He tried to make a living as a sports promoter and would give local sprinters a ten- or twenty-yard start in hundred yard races. He also challenged and defeated thoroughbred racehorses. Owens’ response to the ‘degrading’ nature of such work included, ‘I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals....‘. There was no television, no big advertising, no endorsements then. Not for a black man, anyway.

In 1965, Owens was hired as a running instructor for spring training for the New York Mets . A year later, having filed for bankruptcy and been prosecuted for tax evasion, the government appointed him as a US goodwill ambassador, which took him around the world, speaking to companies and stakeholders, including youth groups, professional organizations, civic meetings, sports banquets, PTAs, church organizations, brotherhood and black history programs, high school- and college commencements and ceremonies.

He was also a public relations representative and consultant to Atlantic Richfield, Ford, and the United States Olympic Committee, amongst others. His job as playground director in Cleveland led Owens to his most fulfilling purpose and having returned to Chicago, he spent much of his time as a board member of the Chicago Boys' Club, working with underprivileged youths.

Owens death due to lung cancer in March 1980 brought the following tribute from President Jimmy Carter, ‘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.’

Amongst numerous prestigious awards that Owens received, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 and the Living Legend Award in 1979, a newly-discovered asteroid was named after him in 1980. In 1990 Owens was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bush.

A bronze plaque in the Jesse Owens Memorial park and Museum in Oakville, Alabama, includes the inscription written by Charles Ghigna,

May this light shine forever
as a symbol to all who run
for the freedom of sport,
for the spirit of humanity,
for the memory of Jesse Owens

Remember Jesse Owens with this vintage track photograph of Jesse Owensat the 1936 Olympic Games.  

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