Jesse Owen one of Athletics great

PHYLLIS LOGIE By PHYLLIS LOGIE, 12th Apr 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Sports>Sports

Jesse Owen will forever be remebered for one stunning week in 1936 when he rose above the odds to defeat racism, Hitler and his peers and win four gold medals, a record which stood until 1984 when it was finally broken by Carl Lewis.

Jesse Owen, Super athlete

James Cleveland Owens, super athlete and winner of four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Germany was born on the 12th September 1913, Oakville, Alabama. He was the seventh of ten children born to Henry and Emma Owen who were sharecroppers.

He came to be known as ‘Jesse’ when he enrolled at a new school and his teacher misheard J.C and recorded his name as Jesse, the name he would be known by for the rest of his life.

Whilst Jesse was growing up racism and Jim Crow segregation were the dominating factors in the day-to-day lives of African Americans living in the South. In an effort to escape abject poverty and improve the family’s prospects, the Owens’ moved to Cleveland Ohio to escape the harsh realities of life in the Deep South. Jesse attended Cleveland East Technical high school and whilst there, his talent was spotted by high school coach, Charles Riley. Riley would coach him for four years before school, because after school he worked to help supplement the family’s income.

Because of his innate athletic abilities he was sought after my many colleges, none of them however would give him a scholarship, which meant that he had to continue working to support himself. He eventually decided to attend Ohio State University because it was close to home. There he suffered daily, the indignity of discrimination on campus and when travelling to athletic meets.

1935 was a remarkable year for Owens. It was the year that he married his high school sweetheart by whom he eventually had three daughters. It was also the year that he set three world records and equalled a fourth, all of which was accomplished in less than one hour. These achievements in effect secured his place on the 1936 US Olympic team and bought him his ticket to the Berlin Olympics.

It was three years before the outbreak of World War II and Adolf Hitler was in power. For him it was a great opportunity to showcase Germany and the athletic ability of the Germans. He believed in the superiority of the Aryan race, therefore the inferiority of other races and fully expected, along with the hostile German spectators, that the German athletes would be successful in the events they entered. However, Jessie Owen had other ideas.

Despite the hostile atmosphere, Jesse triumphed in both the 100 and 200 meters and in the long jump. At the last minute he was asked to replace another athlete in the 4 x 100 meter relay team, which won him his fourth gold medal. This was a record that remained unequalled and unbroken until 1984 with the arrival of, another super talented African American, Carl Lewis.

Owen, along with thirteen other Africa American medal winners, successfully repudiating Hitler’s notion of Aryan superiority. Owen’s athletic abilities won over the 110,000 spectators who enthusiastically cheered him on, waited in line for his autograph and to have their photograph taken with him. Less enthusiastic was Adolf Hitler whose racist ideas were lying in tatters in the Olympic staduim.

History records that on the first day he congratulated only the victorious German athletics and was conspicuously absent when Owen and other African American won their gold medals. The Olympic committee disapproved of his behaviour and told him in very clear and certain terms that either all the victorious athletes were congratulated, or none at all.

Hitler decided that he would congratulate none. However, when Owen was later questioned about Hitler’s attitude, he said that as he passed Hitler waved at him and he waved back. Owen was more concerned with the response of the president of America, Franklyn D. Roosevelt who neither sent him a congratulatory telegram nor made any attempt to shake his hand.

During the 1936 Olympics Adi Dressler, founder of the ADIDAS shoe manufacturing company persuaded Owens to wear one of his company’s shoes, making it the first time that a male African American had received a sponsorship deal.

In 1976 President Gerald Ford awarded Jesse Owen the presidential Medal of Freedom. J.C had been a very heavy smoker for many years and eventually succumbed to lung cancer. He died on the 31st March 1980 aged 66 years. After his death a memorial foundation was established in his honour and in 1990 he was posthumously awarded the congressional medal by President G.H.W. Bush.

Jesse Owen, the boy whose high school coach said of him that he seems to float over the ground when he ran, will always be remembered for one stunning week in 1936.


Adolf Hitler, Athlete, Athletic, Athletics, Gold Medal, Jesse Owen, Racism, Super Athlete

Meet the author

author avatar PHYLLIS LOGIE
I am a retired female who has been writing for the past five years. My favorite topics are history and biographies.

Share this page

moderator Mark Gordon Brown moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


Add a comment
Can't login?