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Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens 1936.jpg
Jesse Owens when he won four Olympic gold medals in 1936
Personal information
Full name James Cleveland Owens
Nationality American
Born (1913-09-12)September 12, 1913
Oakville, Alabama, U.S.
Died March 31, 1980(1980-03-31) (aged 66)
Tucson, Arizona, U.S.
Education Ohio State University,
Fairmont Junior High School,
East Technical High School
Height 5 feet 11 inches (180 cm)
Weight 165 pounds (75 kg)
M. Ruth Solomon
(m. 1935)
Sport Track and field
Event(s) Sprint, Long jump
Achievements and titles
Personal best(s) 60 yd: 6.1
100 yd: 9.4
100 m: 10.3
200 m: 20.7
220 yd: 20.3
Medal record
Men's track and field
Representing the  United States
Olympic Games
Gold 1936 Berlin 100 m
Gold 1936 Berlin 200 m
Gold 1936 Berlin 4×100 m relay
Gold 1936 Berlin Long jump

James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) was an American track and field athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games.

He achieved international fame at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. There he won four gold medals: 100 meters, long jump, 200 meters, and 4 × 100-meter relay. He was the most successful athlete at the Games and, as a black American man, was credited with "single-handedly crushing Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy".

Early life and education

Jesse Owens, originally known as J.C., was the youngest of ten children (three girls and seven boys) born to Henry Cleveland Owens (a sharecropper) and Mary Emma Fitzgerald in Oakville, Alabama, on September 12, 1913. He was the grandson of a slave.

At the age of nine, he and his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio for better opportunities. 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 stuck, and he was known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.

As a 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 school track coach at Fairmount Junior High School. Since Owens worked 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 100 yards (91 m) dash and long-jumped 24 feet 9 12 inches (7.56 m) at the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago.


Ohio State University

Owens attended the Ohio State University after his father found employment, which ensured that the family could be supported.

He was affectionately known as the "Buckeye Bullet". Under the coaching of Larry Snyder, 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).

Because of his race, Owens 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 "blacks-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.

Day of days

May 25, 1935 is remembered as the day when Jesse Owens established 4 world records in athletics.

On that day, Owens achieved track and field immortality in a span of 45 minutes during the Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He set three world records and tied a fourth.

He equaled the world record for the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds) (not to be confused with the 100-meter dash), and set world records in:

  • the long jump (26 feet 8 14 inches or 8.13 metres, a world record that would last for 25 years);
  • 220 yards (201.2 m) sprint (20.3 seconds);
  • and 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds, becoming the first to break 23 seconds).

In 2005, University of Central Florida professor of sports history Richard C. Crepeau chose these wins on one day as the most impressive athletic achievement since 1850.

1936 Berlin Summer Olympics

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R96374, Berlin, Olympiade, Jesse Owens beim Weitsprung crop
Owens displaying excellent form during his victory in the long jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin

Before the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, Owens was discouraged by the NAACP to participate. Many argued that an African American should not promote a racist regime after what his race had suffered at the hands of white racists in his own country. Ownes even said that the United States should withdraw from the 1936 Olympics. Yet he and others eventually took part.

Olympic Village house of Jesse Owens
2015 photograph of the U.S. track team house at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Village
Jesse Owen's Room in Berlin 1936 Olympic Village
2015 photograph of Jesse Owens's room in the 1936 Olympic Village in Berlin

In 1936, Owens and his United States teammates sailed on the SS Manhattan and arrived in Germany to compete at the Summer Olympics in Berlin. According to fellow American sprinter James LuValle, who won the bronze in the 400 meters, Owens arrived at the new Olympic stadium to a throng of fans, many of them young girls yelling "Wo ist Jesse? Wo ist Jesse?" ("Where is Jesse? Where is Jesse?").

On August 3, Owens won the 100 m dash with a time of 10.3 seconds, defeating a teammate and a 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 8.06 metres (26 ft 5 in) (3¼ inches short of his own world record). He initially credited this achievement to the technical advice that he received from Luz Long, the German competitor whom he defeated, but later admitted that this was not true, as he and Long didn't meet until after the competition was over.

On August 5, he won the 200 m sprint with a time of 20.7 seconds, defeating teammate Mack Robinson (the older brother of Jackie Robinson).

On August 9, Owens won his fourth gold medal in the 4 × 100 m sprint relay when head coach Lawson Robertson 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 39.8 seconds in the event. Owens had initially protested the last-minute switch, but assistant coach Dean Cromwell said to him, "You'll do as you are told."

Owens's record-breaking performance of four gold medals was not equaled until Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Hitler did not publicly congratulate any of the medal winners this time. He left before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters.

Owens's success at the games upset Hitler. He and other government officials had hoped that German athletes would dominate the games. Nazi minister Albert Speer wrote that Hitler "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."

Segregation issues

In Germany, Owens had been allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites, at a time when African Americans in many parts of the United States had to stay in segregated hotels that accommodated only blacks.

When Owens returned to the United States, he was greeted in New York City by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. During a Manhattan ticker-tape parade in his honor along Broadway's Canyon of Heroes, someone handed Owens a paper bag. Owens paid it little mind until the parade concluded. When he opened it up, he found that the bag contained $10,000 in cash. Owens's wife Ruth later said: "And he [Owens] didn't know who was good enough to do a thing like that. And with all the excitement around, he didn't pick it up right away. He didn't pick it up until he got ready to get out of the car".

After the parade, Owens was not permitted to enter through the main doors of the Waldorf Astoria New York and instead forced to travel up to the reception honoring him in a freight elevator. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) never invited Jesse Owens to the White House following his triumphs at the Olympic Games.

Owens joined the Republican Party after returning from Europe and was paid to campaign for African American votes for the Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon in the 1936 presidential election.

Life after the Olympics

Jesse Owens 1971 Ajman stamp
Owens on a 1971 UAE stamp

After the games had ended, the entire Olympic team was invited to compete in Sweden.

Owens decided to return to the United States to take up some of endorsement offers. United States athletic officials were furious and withdrew his amateur status, which immediately ended his career. Owens was prohibited from making appearances at amateur sporting events, and he found out that the commercial offers had all but disappeared.

Owens was angry. The racial discrimination he had faced throughout his athletic career, such as not being eligible for scholarships in college and therefore being unable to take classes between training and working to pay his way, meant he had to give up on amateur athletics in pursuit of financial gain elsewhere.

Owens returned home from the 1936 Olympics with four gold medals and international fame, but he had difficulty finding work. He took on jobs as a gas station attendant, playground janitor, and manager of a dry cleaning firm. He also raced against amateurs and horses for cash. 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." On the lack of opportunities, Owens added, "There was no television, no big advertising, no endorsements then. Not for a black man, anyway."

In 1937, he briefly toured with a twelve-piece jazz band under contract with Consolidated Artists. He also made appearances at baseball games and other events. Finally, Willis Ward—a friend and former competitor from the University of Michigan—brought Owens to Detroit in 1942 to work at Ford Motor Company as Assistant Personnel Director. Owens later became a director, working until 1946.

In the late 1940s, he moved his family to Chicago and opened his own public relations agency. He would remain based in Chicago for most of the rest of his life.

Owens helped promote the exploitation film Mom and Dad in African American neighborhoods. He tried to make a living as a sports promoter, essentially an entertainer.

Owens ran a dry cleaning business and worked as a gas station attendant to earn a living, but he eventually filed for bankruptcy.

At rock bottom, he was aided in beginning his rehabilitation. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower enlisted Owens as a goodwill ambassador in 1955 and sent the world-renowned track star to India, the Philippines, and Malaya to promote physical exercise as well as American freedom and economic opportunity in the developing world. He would continue his goodwill tours in the 1960s and 1970s.

He traveled to Rome for the 1960 Summer Olympics, where he met the 1960 100 meters champion Armin Hary of Germany, who had defeated American Dave Sime in a photo finish.

In 1965, Owens was hired as a running instructor for spring training for the New York Mets. In 1966, he was successfully prosecuted for tax evasion.

Owens traveled to Munich for the 1972 Summer Olympics as a special guest of the West German government, meeting West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and former boxer Max Schmeling.

Owens continued his product endorsement work for such corporations as Quaker Oats, Sears and Roebuck, and Johnson & Johnson. Owens traveled the world and spoke to companies such as the Ford Motor Company and stakeholders such as the United States Olympic Committee.

In 1972, he and his wife retired to Arizona.

A few months before his death, Owens had unsuccessfully tried to convince President Jimmy Carter to withdraw his demand that the United States boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He argued that the Olympic ideal was supposed to be observed as a time-out from war and that it was above politics.

Personal life

Owens met Minnie Ruth Solomon (1915–2001) at Fairmont Junior High School in Cleveland when he was 15 and she was 13. They dated steadily through high school.

Ruth gave birth to their first daughter Gloria in 1932. They married on July 5, 1935, and had two more daughters together: Marlene, born in 1937, and Beverly, born in 1940. They remained married until his death in 1980.


Grave of Jesse Owens (1913–1980) at Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago 1
Owens's grave at Oak Woods Cemetery

Owens was a pack-a-day cigarette smoker for 35 years, starting at age 32. Beginning in December 1979, he was hospitalized on and off with an extremely aggressive and drug-resistant type of lung cancer. He died of the disease at age 66 in Tucson, Arizona, on March 31, 1980, with his wife and other family members at his bedside. He was buried next to the Lake of Memories at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. The grave is inscribed:

Jesse Owens. Olympic Champion. 1936. Athlete and humanitarian. A master of the spirit as well as the mechanics of sports. A winner who knew that winning was not everything. He showed extraordinary love for his family and friends. His achievements have shown us all the promise of America. His faith in America inspired countless others to do their best for themselves and their country. September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980.

Although Jimmy Carter had ignored Owens's request to cancel the Olympic boycott, the president issued a tribute to Owens after he died: "Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry."

Jesse Owens quotes

  • "I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible. From the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up."
  • “One chance is all you need.”
  • “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.”
  • “Find the good. It's all around you. Find it, showcase it and you'll start believing in it.”
  • “We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.”
  • “The road to the Olympics, leads to no city, no country. It goes far beyond New York or Moscow, ancient Greece or Nazi Germany. The road to the Olympics leads — in the end — to the best within us.”
  • “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.”
  • “Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.”

Interesting facts about Jesse Owens

  • Owens specialized in the sprints and the long jump.
  • He was recognized in his lifetime as "perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history".
  • He set three world records and tied another, all in less than an hour, at the 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan—a feat that has never been equaled and has been called "the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport".
  • The Jesse Owens Award is USA Track and Field's highest accolade for the year's best track and field athlete.
  • Owens was ranked by ESPN as the sixth greatest North American athlete of the 20th century and the highest-ranked in his sport.
  • In 1999, he was on the six-man short-list for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Century.
  • The dormitory that Owens occupied during the Berlin Olympics has been fully restored into a living museum, with pictures of his accomplishments at the games, and a letter (intercepted by the Gestapo) from a fan urging him not to shake hands with Hitler.
  • In 2016, the 1936 Olympic journey of the eighteen Black American athletes, including Owens, was documented in the film Olympic Pride, American Prejudice.
  • Just before the competitions in the 1936 Olympics, founder of Adidas athletic shoe company Adi Dassler visited Owens in the Olympic village and persuaded him to wear Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes; this was the first sponsorship for a male African American athlete.
  • Owens had set the world record in the long jump with a leap of 8.13 m (26 ft 8 in) in 1935, the year before the Berlin Olympics, and this record stood for 25 years until it was broken in 1960 by countryman Ralph Boston. Coincidentally, Owens was a spectator at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome when Boston took the gold medal in the long jump.
  • Owens' long-jump victory is documented, along with many other 1936 events, in the 1938 film Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl.
  • In 1946, Owens and Abe Saperstein formed the West Coast Negro Baseball League, a new Negro baseball league. The WCBA disbanded after only two months.
  • Owens was Vice-President and the owner of the Portland (Oregon) Rosebuds franchise.

Awards and honors

  • 1936: AP Athlete of the Year (Male)
  • 1936: four English oak saplings, one for each Olympic gold medal, from the German Olympic Committee, planted. One of the trees was planted at the University of Southern California, one at Rhodes High School in Cleveland, where he trained, and one is rumored to be on the Ohio State University campus but has yet to be identified. The fourth tree was at the home of Jesse Owens's mother but was removed when the house was demolished.
  • 1970: inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
  • 1976: awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford.
  • 1976: inducted into Silver Olympic Order for his quadruple victory in the 1936 games and his defense of sport and the ethics of sport.
  • 1979: awarded Living Legend Award by President Jimmy Carter.
  • 1980: asteroid newly discovered by Antonín Mrkos at the Kleť Observatory named 6758 Jesseowens.
  • 1981: USA Track and Field created the Jesse Owens Award which is given annually to the country's top track and field athlete.
  • 1983: part of inaugural class into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
  • 1984: street south of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin renamed Jesse-Owens-Allee
  • 1984: secondary school Jesse Owens Realschule/Oberschule in Lichtenberg, Berlin named for Owens.
  • March 28, 1990: posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George H. W. Bush.
  • 1990 and 1998: two U.S. postage stamps have been issued to honor Owens, one in each year.
  • 1996: Owens's hometown of Oakville, Alabama, dedicated the Jesse Owens Memorial Park and Museum in his honor at the same time that the Olympic Torch came through the community, 60 years after his Olympic wins. An article in the Wall Street Journal of June 7, 1996, covered the event and included this inscription written by poet Charles Ghigna that appears on a bronze plaque at the park:

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.

  • 1999: ranked the sixth greatest North American athlete of the twentieth century and the highest-ranked in his sport by ESPN.
  • 1999: on the six-man shortlist for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Century.
  • 2001: Ohio State University dedicated Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium for track and field events. A sculpture honoring Owens occupies a place of honor in the esplanade leading to the rotunda entrance to Ohio Stadium. Owens competed for the Buckeyes on the track surrounding the football field that existed prior to the 2001 expansion of Ohio Stadium. The campus also houses three recreational centers for students and staff named in his honor.
  • 2002: scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Owens on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
  • 2009: at the 2009 World Athletic Championships in Berlin, all members of the United States Track and Field team wore badges with "JO" on them to commemorate Owens's victories in the same stadium 73 years before.
  • 2010: Ohio Historical Society proposed Owens as a finalist from a statewide vote for inclusion in Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol.
  • November 15, 2010: the city of Cleveland renamed East Roadway, between Rockwell and Superior avenues in Public Square, Jesse Owens Way.
  • 2012: 80,000 individual pixels in the audience seating area were used as a giant video screen to show footage of Owens running around the stadium in the London 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, just after the Olympic cauldron had been lit.
  • In Cleveland, Ohio, a statue of Owens in his Ohio State track suit was installed at Fort Huntington Park, west of the old Courthouse.
  • Phoenix, Arizona named the Jesse Owens Medical Centre in his honor, as well as Jesse Owens Parkway.
  • Jesse Owens Park, in Tucson, Arizona, is a center of local youth athletics there.
  • For his contribution to sports in Los Angeles, Owens was honored with a Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum "Court of Honor" plaque by the Coliseum commissioners.
  • in July 2018, Ohio Governor John Kasich dedicated the 75th state park Jesse Owens State Park. It is located on AEP reclaimed mining land south of Zanesville, OH.

Literature and film

  • 1984: An Emmy Award-winning biographical television film of Owens's life, The Jesse Owens Story, is released, with Dorian Harewood portraying Owens.
  • 2006: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is released, in which a character named Rudy Steiner idolizes Owens.
  • 2016: A feature film titled Race about Owens with Stephan James portraying Owens was released.
  • 2017: In the Jordan Peele-directed film Get Out, Roman Armitage, the villainous patriarch, lost the qualification round for the 1936 Olympics to Owens, instigating his neurosurgical research and theft of young black men via brain transplant.
  • 2019: In Jojo Rabbit, directed by Taika Waititi, an incarnation of Adolf Hitler humorously refers to the character Elsa as "a little female Jewish Jesse Owens".
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