Jesse Owens running for Ohio State University breaks a record at the 1935 Big Ten Track Meet.
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 track 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 set his first records in the high jump and long jump at Fairmount Junior High School under coach and life-long mentor, Charles Riley.
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 while seated 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 on the Medal stand at the 1936 Berlin Olympic games where he topped a German and a Japanese runners.
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 Germany he could stay at hotels and dine with white athletes. In America 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 there was then no professional track circuit in which to compete.
Owens found less than a warm welcome after the initial hoopla and few of the other opportunities other high profile Olympians were offered. He was eventually forced to take a job pumping gas to support his family. Despite living on the edge of poverty, he was even prosecuted for income tax evasion.
He turned to self-promoting exhibitions which included taking on all comers in sprints giving the challengers big leads and running against racehorses. 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.
At the request of Avery Brundage of the United States Olympic Committee Jesse Owens tried to dissuade Black athletes from protests at the 1968 Mexico City Games and denounced Juan Carlos and Tommy Smith after they famously raised their fists during the National Anthem. Owens was widely condemned as an Uncle Tom in the Black community.
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.
Americans know, or think they know, Owens best through film. First there was Leni Riefenstahl’s epic documentary of the Berlin Games meant to celebrate the triumph of Aryan superiority and Nazi glory. But Owens’s four medals were so dominating and the footage of his events, his medal ceremonies, and of Hitler skulking out of his box were so compelling that Owens, not Der Furer, seemed the star of the movie.
Two American documentaries made years later also were widely viewed. Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin by Bud Greenspan was shown on TV in connection with the 1964 Tokyo Games. More recently Jesse Owens on the PBS American Masters series in 2012 not only celebrated his athletic feats, but looked unflinchingly as his post games life, racism, and how after his criticism of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, he was widely denounced as an Uncle Tom.
In the wake of the success of Roots, the made-for-TV-movie The Jesse Owens Story starring Dorian Harewood in 1984 told Owen’s story in flashbacks from his tax evasion trial. Although Owens’s post-glory tribulations were detailed, curiously little attention was paid to his wife and family who he worked so hard to support. The movie was syndicated mostly to independent outlets in mid-summer by Operation Prime Time. It did get three Prime Time Emmy Awards and won one—for Best Men’s Hairstyling.Stephan James starred as Jesse Owens in the 2016 film Race.
In 2016 in time for the 80th anniversary of the Berlin Games a new feature biopic, Race, directed by Stephen Hopkins and starring Stephan James concentrated on the games and Owen’s single-minded preparation. It drew strong reviews and compliments from surviving family members for respect and accuracy but did disappointing box office and was shut out of the awards nominations that prestige pictures about race often garner.
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