Jesse Owens

Aug 16th, 2011 | By | Category: Sports
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Jesse Owens1913 – 1980  James C. (“Jesse”) Owens overcame physical, economic, and racial barriers to become one of the greatest athletes of all time, and the first world renowned African American sports star. In so doing, he publicly refuted bigoted attitudes toward Blacks, and set an example for personal excellence and achievement in all of his endeavors.

A Star is Born

Owens was born in Alabama in 1913 to Henry and Emma Owens, sharecroppers who were the children of slaves. Their existence was marginal, often without enough food, and Owens (the seventh of 11 children) was sickly. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when Owens was seven, but life was not much improved. The young boy worked in his spare time to contribute to the family income, while attending public school.

During a 60-yard race in gym class, Owens so impressed the coach that he was offered special coaching. By age 12, Owens showed extraordinary promise as a sprinter. At Cleveland East Technical High School, he distinguished himself in competition, while still working after-school jobs. He tied the world record in the 100-yard dash, and set new national records in the 200-yard dash and broad-jump. He was aggressively courted by a number of colleges and universities, but no scholarships were available.

Owens felt unable to leave home and forfeit his financial contribution to the household. When Ohio State University arranged work for his father, Owens accepted an offer to attend (but still worked three jobs in his free time). There he achieved national recognition while experiencing the insult of racism. He and the other African Americans were forced to live off-campus, and when traveling, they were confined to “blacks-only” restaurants and hotels.

At the Big Ten track and field meet in Ann Arbor in 1935, Owens’ coach was unsure that he could compete. Owens had injured his back one week prior, and had not been able to train. He prevailed upon the coach to let him run, and achieved the unprecedented feat of setting three world records, and tying a fourth, in less than one hour. He smashed the broad-jump record by almost six inches, with a leap of 26 feet, 8-1/4 inches. He set new world records with 20.3 seconds in the 220-yard dash, and in the 220-yard low hurdles with 22.6 seconds. And he once again tied the 100-yard dash record of 9.4 seconds. Also in 1935, Owens married long-time girlfriend Ruth Solomon, with whom he would have three daughters. Reaching the end of his sophomore year, he turned his eyes to Olympic competition; and the eyes of America were on this rising star.

Going Gold

The 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, Nazi Germany. Adolph Hitler planned to use the competition to prove Aryan (white) racial supremacy. Owens was scheduled to compete in three events, and became a substitute for a relay runner in a fourth. After initially faltering with two fouls in the broad-jump, he received encouragement and advice from Hitler’s favorite Lutz Long. Owens proceeded to win the Gold Medal. He also won Gold Medals in the other three events, the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, and 400-meter relay team. Owens was the first American to win four Gold Medals in the history of Olympic Track and Field competition, and by the end of the event the mostly German audience was cheering and chanting his name. Hitler left the stadium before Owens could complete his triumph.

While a ticker-tape parade greeted Owens in New York City on his return, there were no professional endorsement opportunities available (possibly due to racial discrimination). As he said in an interview: “I came back to my native country and I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus.” A misunderstanding with a track and field association compromised his ability to compete. Owens left school before graduating, and did what he could to earn a living by running and racing horses and motorcycles in demonstrations and shows. An unsuccessful dry-cleaning business was followed by a term as national director of physical education for African Americans with the Office of Civilian Defense from 1940 to 1942. In 1942, Owens joined the Ford Motor Company in Detroit as personnel director for minority employment. He subsequently became a celebrated spokesman, U.S. goodwill ambassador, and public relations representative for such organizations as Ford and the U.S. Olympic Committee. He was President Eisenhower’s personal representative at the 1956 Olympic Games in Australia.

Owens also developed a second, equally important and successful career working with disadvantaged children. Beginning with his experience as a playground director, he moved to Chicago in 1950 and joined the Board of Directors of the South Side Boys Club. In 1956, he organized the Junior Olympic Games for youngsters aged 12 to 17 in Chicago. He served as a sports specialist for the Illinois Youth Commission for six years. In partnership with a public relations client, Owens created the ARCO/Jesse Owens Games in 1964 for youths between the ages of 10 and 15, benefiting millions.

Owens was criticized for his political attitudes during the late 1960s when he opposed a black boycott of the Olympics. He wrote a defense of his position in 1970, “Blackthink,” but two years later revised his view in the more militant, “I Have Changed.” In another sign of change, 40 years after Owens’ Olympic triumph, President Gerald Ford awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. Then in 1979, President Jimmy Carter honored him with a Living Legend Award.

Owens died of lung cancer on March 31, 1980, in Arizona, and was buried in Chicago. His widow Ruth and daughter Marlene operate the Jesse Owens Foundation, a philanthropic memorial to America’s first athletic superstar. In a final posthumous tribute, Ruth accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on her husband’s behalf from President George Bush in 1990. As Owens himself once said: “Life is the real Olympics.”


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