Great Olympians: Jesse Owens
Created | Updated Sep 20, 2008
We all have dreams. In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort.
- Jesse Owens.
Jesse Owens was perhaps the most gifted pre-World War Two Olympic athlete. Although he only competed in one Olympic Games, he is considered by the American National Collegiate Athletic Association to be the third most influential student-athlete of all time1, despite a meteoric career that was over before he was 23 years old. Of course, without the intervention of World War Two, Owens could potentially have gone on to dominate Olympic events for a further decade. Incredibly, though, he wouldn't even have been considered despite scoring a moral victory over Nazi Germany at the 1936 Games. This is the sad story of a great athlete, sidelined by his own country for dubious - and some would say racist - reasons.
On Your Marks...
Owens was born on 12 September, 1913 in Oakland, a small town in Alabama, USA. The seventh of eleven children, James Cleveland Owens was known by the family as JC for the first nine years of his life, but when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, that soon changed. His teacher at his new school misheard him pronounce his name, and from then on JC was known to all as Jesse.
The prosperity the family had hoped to find in Cleveland didn't materialise, and life was tough for Owens's family. Even before his teens, Owens was helping to make ends meet, taking on a succession of after-school jobs. When the students of his school were timed in a sixty-yard sprint, the athletics coach Charlie Riley spotted his impressive time and invited him onto the track team. Owens was unable to train after school due to his work, but the committed Riley, convinced he had a star on his hands, trained the young man before school instead of afterwards. Riley was a huge influence on Owens, who later said:
Every morning, just like in Alabama, I got up with the sun, ate my breakfast even before my mother and sisters and brothers, and went to school, winter, spring, and fall alike to run and jump and bend my body this way and that for Mr Charles Riley.
By the time he was 20, Owens was beginning to make an impact at a national level. He went to the National High School Championship in 1933, where he equalled the world record for the 100 yards (9.4 seconds) and won the long jump.
Owens was offered places from universities across America because of his athletic potential. At first he refused; he had been married to Ruth at the age of eighteen, and decided his family needed financial stability first. Once his father had finally found a job, Owens accepted a place at The Ohio State University but was not awarded a scholarship and continued to work part-time. His training continued under the watchful eyes of Larry Snyder, who fine-tuned his techniques and helped him to perform better in front of large crowds. The 'Buckeye2 Bullet', as he became known, competed in his first NCAA Championships in 1935 in a national meeting organised by the Big Ten - an athletics confederation run by America's top universities - in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
After falling down some stairs, Owens had been carrying a back injury for the week leading up to the event. Snyder thought it best for Owens to sit the event out, but Owens was desperate to compete. The coach eventually agreed that he would be allowed to run the 100 yards. Incredibly, Owens not only won the event but once again equalled the world record, timing 9.4 seconds once more. Not quite able to believe what he was seeing, Snyder allowed Owens to compete in other events. First, Owens placed a handkerchief at the world record distance for the long jump, and proceeded to clear it by six inches. Then he raced the 220-yard dash, and broke another world record, finishing in 20.3 seconds. And, as an encore, he won the 220-yard hurdles, and became the first man to run it in less than 23 seconds.
Despite being injured, Owens had competed in four events, broken three world records and equalled another. Perhaps most sensationally of all, it had only taken him three-quarters of an hour. His performance was rated by Observer Sports Monthly as third in the Ten Greatest Athletics Performances of All-Time, and in 1982 the Big Ten named their new Athlete of the Year award in his honour.
All was not rosy at The Ohio State University, though. America was struggling to desegregate, and along with other African-Americans, Owens, the grandson of a slave, was forced to live off-campus. When travelling with the team, he usually had to eat and sleep apart from the rest of the team, in 'black-only' hotels and restaurants. Occasionally a 'white' hotel would allow black athletes to stay, but only if they agreed to use a different entrance and use the stairs rather than the lift. In the context of the events that would shape his later career, however, these were minor inconveniences.
After another successful year as a student-athlete, the 22-year-old Owens boarded the SS Manhattan to take part in the 1936 Olympics. On the boat, he was accommodated in third class along with the few other black athletes, but seemed fairly used to segregation by now. He even won the honour of 'Best Dressed Man' on the boat! The Nazis hoped to use the Berlin Games to show that the Aryans were the superior physical race, so there was a very strong political influence on the Games. On arrival in Germany, Owens was greeted by a troupe of 'Hitler Youth', who gave him the Nazi salute. Newspapers printed pictures of him next to an ape, and attributed his prowess to 'animal qualities'. He seemed entirely unaffected by it all; indeed, he wrote in his pocket diary (titled 'Travels Abroad' in gold print on the cover) that 'I like the Germans very much. They are friendly and keen to show a positive side to their country'.
I wanted no part of politics. And I wasn't in Berlin to compete against any one athlete. The purpose of the Olympics, anyway, was to do your best. As I'd learned long ago from Charles Riley, the only victory that counts is the one over yourself.
His performances were certainly unaffected. On 3 August he began his gold medal pursuit at Berlin's Olympic Stadium, in front of 110,000 people, including Hitler himself. The Manchester Guardian reported that 'it need hardly be said that Jesse Owens won the 100 metres', although his world record time was not allowed, apparently due to it being wind-assisted. The following day, according to legend, he was about to go out of the long jump at the qualifying stage before German competitor Carl Ludwig 'Lutz' Long advised him to jump from a little further back. Owens did so, and qualified for the final. It was very close. With one jump to go, Lutz was exactly level with Owens with a jump of 25 feet 9 inches, and three other men within an inch of him.
I decided I wasn't going to come down. I was going to fly. I was going to stay up in the air forever.
Owens settled the contest with a mammoth leap, which took him eight inches clear of the field, and Owens and Long returned to the changing rooms arm-in-arm. Owens later said:
It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler... You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the twenty-four kilates3 friendship that I felt for Lutz Long at that moment.
He added the 200 metres - with a winning margin of eight metres - and the 4x100-metre relay events to his tally of gold medals. Interestingly, the feat was repeated in 1984, when another American, Carl Lewis, won the same events in Los Angeles. Owens broke the world record in all the events except the 100 metres, records which would not be surpassed for over 20 years.
Owens was adored by ordinary Germans, who often stopped him to shake his hand and ask for autographs in the street and spectators gave him a rapturous welcome in the stadium. He didn't shake the hand of Hitler, though, as the Führer had apparently left the arena early; there is a story that this was because of Owens. Hitler, having given personal congratulations to two German winners and a Finn, left as the national anthem began to commemorate American Cornelius Johnson's win. The authorities claimed it was because of a lack of time, although many believe that it was because one of the first day winners was Johnson, an African-American. Either way, Owens was not involved. His performance at the Games was, however, named (again by the Observer newspaper) as one of the ten boldest political gestures.
Covered in glory, Owens returned to the USA.
Quite rightly, Owens was fêted with a ticker-tape parade in New York, followed by a reception at a smart hotel. Things hadn't changed, though; he still had to enter the hotel by a side entrance and had to use the freight lift to get to the party held in his honour. Ironically, in Germany there had been no limitations on where he could and could not stay and eat, but in America there was still segregation. He was struck by the controversy over Hitler not shaking the hands of black athletes:
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.
Things got worse. To support his family, Owens started looking for sponsorship, like many American athletes were at the time, and reportedly, film companies and publishers were interested in his story. Some prejudiced elements in the athletics establishment evidently saw this as an excuse to get rid of him, and on returning from a race in London later in the year he was banned for life for 'professionalism'. Apart from the case of Jim Thorpe, who was stripped of his 1912 medals when found to have received payment for minor league baseball appearances, this was a charge never levelled at any white athlete4. Owens's career was over, less than a month before his 23rd birthday.
On Boxing Day, 1936 he raced again, this time against a horse in Havana, Cuba. Over the next four years he would race an assortment of dogs, horses, trains and buses, an ignominious end to a career that had barely begun. He toured America, racing anyone from the fastest kid in town to boxer Joe Louis. It is impossible to imagine the same fate befalling a white American athlete5 - especially a world record holder in three disciplines who, just four months earlier, had captured the spirit of an Olympic Games.
Through exhibition races across America, Owens did enough to make a living; his trick was to ensure he raced a thoroughbred horse that would be startled by the starting pistol. He developed a skill for public speaking, and eventually began a public relations company, also for a while working as a jazz DJ in Chicago. He also, unsurprisingly, became a prominent civil rights campaigner.
His achievements were belatedly recognised when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 and, after his death from lung cancer in 1980, the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990. In 1983, he was posthumously awarded a place in the US Olympic Hall of Fame. He has also appeared on stamps in America and Ireland. His family still operate the Jesse Owens Foundation, which supports young American students.