Saturday, May 25, 2013

Jesse Owens Smashed Records, Defied Expectations

Owens on his multiple-record setting day in 1935.

On May 25, 1935, James Cleveland Owens, an athlete on the Ohio State University (OSU) track team, demolished three World Records and tied a fourth in 45 minutes at a Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor.  The jaw dropping accomplishment did not go unnoticed.

Jesse Owens was born in Alabama in 1913, one of eleven children.  He was 9 years old when his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he was recruited to run track by a junior high school coach while working part time jobs to support his family. 

Owens first came to national attention when he tied a world record in the 100 yard dash and long jumped for 24 feet 9 ½ inches at the National High School Championships in Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1933.  The sought-after young athlete was recruited by OSU, but not offered a scholarship.  A job was arranged for his father so the Owens could go to school, work only part time, and compete.  He was not allowed to live on campus and had to abide by local segregation laws when traveling with the team—eating take outs from restaurants that would not serve him and sleeping in separate hotels or on the team bus. 

In his college career he won eight NCAA individual event championships over two years in 1935-36.  

Owens was naturally included on the 1936 Olympic Team.  During the  Berlin Olympics, meant to show off Adolph Hitler’s “New Germany” and establish the superiority of Aryan athletes, Owens famously won Gold Medals in the 100 meter sprint, long jump, 200 meter sprint, and the 4 x 100 relay—a feat unmatched until Carl Lewis in 1984.  

The day he won his first medal, Hitler left the stands after shaking the hands of only German athletes.  When the International Olympic Committee told Der Fuehrer that he had to greet all medal winners or none, he skipped all remaining medal ceremonies. 

Owens disputed claims that he was “snubbed by Hitler.”  He said they had exchanged waves as he marched past and that he did not expect a personal greeting.  “Hitler didn't snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram,” Owens later said.  

Indeed neither Franklin Roosevelt nor Harry Truman ever invited him to the White House or acknowledged his accomplishments. Dwight Eisenhower finally recognized him with an appointment as an international Ambassador of Sports.  

Owens also pointed out that ordinary Germans were enthusiastic and supportive and that while in German he could stay at hotels and dine with white athletes.  After a ticker-tape parade in his honor in New York he was forced to ride the freight elevator to a reception in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. 

After the Olympics he was stripped of his amateur standing for refusing to make a tour of Sweden with fellow athletes and instead trying to find paying opportunities in the U.S. to support his family.  But aside from a deal with the founder of Adidas shoes, he found no endorsement deals and no professional track circuit in which to compete. 
He turned to self-promoting exhibitions which included taking on all comers in sprints giving the challengers big leads and running against race horses.  An attempt at running a dry cleaning business failed.  At one point he was reduced to working as a gas station attendant.  

Despite all of these financial travails, he was successfully prosecuted by the Treasury Department for tax evasion in 1966.  

Ironically his public chastisement of Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos for giving Black Power salutes in their medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics led to a kind of public rehabilitation and opportunities as a motivational speaker for Ford Motor Company and as a spokesman for the United States Olympic Committee. 

A smoker for 35 years, Owens died of lung cancer in Tuscan, Arizona in 1983 at the age of 66.  His friend and fellow Olympian Congressman Ralph Metcalfe helped arrange his burial at Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery.

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