Jesse Owens

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Sports and games people

Olympic medalist
Medal record
Men's athletics
Gold 1936 Berlin 100 m
Gold 1936 Berlin 200 m
Gold 1936 Berlin 4 x 100 m relay
Gold 1936 Berlin Long jump

James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens ( September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) was a popular American athlete and civic leader. 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 meter dash, the 200 meter dash, the long jump, and for being part of the 4x100 meter relay team.

Early years

Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama and moved to Cleveland, Ohio when he was nine years old as the seventh of the eleven children of Henry and Emma Owens. Owens was the grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper. He was often sick with what his mother reportedly called "devil's cold". He was given the name Jesse by a teacher in Cleveland who did not understand his 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 picked him off the playground and put him on the track team (see also Harrison Dillard, a Cleveland athlete inspired by Owens). Since Jesse worked in a shoe repair shop after school, Riley allowed Jesse to practice before school instead.

Owens first came to national attention when, as a student of East Technical High School in Cleveland, Ohio, he tied the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash and long-jumped 24 feet 9 1/2 inches at the 1933 National High School Championship meet in Chicago.


Owens attended 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 included relay medals

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 four world records. He tied the world record for the 100 yard (91 m) dash (9.4 seconds) and set world records in the long jump (26-8¼, a world record that would last 25 years), 220 yard (201 m) dash (20.3 seconds), and the 220 yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds to become the first person to break 23 seconds). This incredible feat is widely considered one of the most amazing athletic achievements of all time. In fact, 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.

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. He and other government officials had high hopes German athletes would dominate the games with victories. Meanwhile, Nazi propaganda promoted concepts of " Aryan racial superiority" and depicted ethnic Africans (e.g. the Rhineland Bastards) as inferior.

Owens surprised many by winning four gold medals: On August 3, 1936 the 100m dash, defeating Ralph Metcalfe; on August 4, the long jump, after friendly and helpful advice from German competitor Lutz Long; on August 5, the 200m dash; and, after he was added to the 4 x 100m relay team, his fourth on August 9 (his performance wasn't duplicated until Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events at the 1984 Summer Olympics).

On the first day, Hitler shook hands only with the German victors and then left the stadium (some claim this was to avoid having to shake hands with Cornelius Johnson, who was African-American, but according to a spokesman Hitler's exit had been pre-scheduled). 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.

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. Although had he lived in Germany, he would have been barred from citizenship under the Reich Citizenship Law of September 15, 1935 "§2 1. A Reich citizen is a subject of the State who is of German or related blood, who proves by his conduct that he is willing and fit faithfully to serve the German people and Reich." Nevertheless, Owens was allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites, an irony at the time, since Negroes in the United States were denied equal rights. After a New York ticker-tape parade in his honour, Owens had to ride the freight elevator to attend a reception for him at the Waldorf-Astoria. He later recounted:

Jesse Owens
When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.
Jesse Owens

Post Olympics

After the games he had difficulty making a living and became 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 pistol and give him a good jump. His self-promotion eventually turned into a public relations career in Chicago, including a long stint as a popular jazz disc jockey there. In 1968, Owens received some criticism for supporting the racially turbulent XIX Olympic Games that year.

Jesse Owens was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 by Gerald Ford and (posthumously) the Congressional Gold Medal by George H. W. Bush on March 28, 1990. In 1984, a street in Berlin was renamed for him and the Jesse Owens Realschule/Oberschule (a secondary school) is in Berlin-Lichtenberg.

A pack-a-day smoker for 35 years, he died of lung cancer at age 66 in Tucson, Arizona. Owens is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.


  • Running in Berlin, Owens (like most of the athletes) wore track shoes made by Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik, a German firm. The company later split in two, becoming Adidas and PUMA.
  • Owens endorsed presidential candidate Alf Landon in 1936.
  • Owens was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African Americans.
  • The runner he beat in the 200m at the 1936 Summer Olympics was Jackie Robinson's brother, Matthew "Mack" Robinson, who also beat the world record at the time.
  • In the 1940s, Owens worked with exploitation filmmaker Kroger Babb as a "hygiene commentator" at predominately African-American locations during the Hygienic Productions presentations of the film Mom and Dad.
  • He was portrayed by Dorian Harewood in the 1984 Emmy Award winning television drama The Jesse Owens Story.

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