Article abstract: The winner of four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, Owens served as an inspirational model of success for American blacks, and later became a symbol and eloquent spokesman for America as a land of opportunity for all.
James Cleveland Owens was born on September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama, a remote little farm community on the northern edge of the state. His father, Henry Cleveland Owens, and his mother, née Mary Emma Fitzgerald, were sharecroppers, descendants of slaves. James Cleveland, the last of nine children who survived infancy, was called J. C. When he was eight or nine years old, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for better work and educational opportunities. On his first day of school, he introduced himself as “J. C.,” but his teacher misunderstood him to say “Jesse.” The young Owens bashfully accepted the mistake, thus taking on the name by which he would become famous.
At Fairmount Junior High School his exceptional athletic ability caught the eye of a physical education teacher, Charles Riley. A white man, Riley became Owens’ coach, his moral monitor, and his surrogate father, teaching him citizenship as well as athletic techniques. Riley worked long hours with his pupil and continued to do so through high school. While on his high school track team, Jesse set several interscholastic records. In 1932, he failed to win a place on the United States Olympic squad, but by the time he had finished high school, in 1933, he had won much acclaim as a track athlete of extraordinary promise.
Owens wished to attend the University of Michigan. No track scholarships were available in that day, however, and Jesse’s parents could not afford tuition. He therefore matriculated at Ohio State University, athletic boosters having arranged for him to work at part-time jobs to pay his expenses. He waited on tables in the dining hall, operated an elevator in the State House, and served as a page boy for the Ohio legislature.
Poorly prepared for college work and distracted by athletics, he was never a good student. After his first term he was constantly on academic probation; once he had to sit out the indoor track season because of bad grades. All the while he excelled in sports, setting numerous Big Ten and national track records. His finest day was May 25, 1935, at the Big Ten championships in Ann Arbor. Within a single hour he set new world records in the 220-yard sprint, the 220-yard hurdles, and the long jump, and tied the world record in the 100-yard dash. Well over a year before the Berlin Games of 1936, Owens emerged as a young man destined for Olympic fame.
His physique, style, and personality made him a sportswriter’s dream. He carried about 165 pounds on a compact frame of five feet, ten inches. A model of graceful form, he ran so smoothly that each performance seemed effortless. Whether on or off the track, he frequently flashed a warm, spontaneous smile. Never did he refuse an interview or autograph. In the face of racial insults and discrimination, he kept a mild, pleasant demeanor. Like most blacks of his generation, Owens survived by turning the other cheek, by presenting himself as a modest individual who did not openly retaliate against the bigotry of his day.
At the Olympic trials in the summer of 1936, he finished first in all three of the events he had entered. Several weeks later, he took the Berlin Olympics by storm. First, he won the 100-meter dash in 10.3 seconds, equaling the world record. Next he took the gold medal in the long jump with a new Olympic distance of 8.06 meters. Then he won the gold in the 200-meter race with a new Olympic mark of 20.7 seconds. Toward the end of the week, he was unexpectedly placed on the American team for the 400-meter relays. He ran the opening leg in yet another gold-medal, record-making effort.
By the end of that fabulous week in Berlin, an attractive yarn attached itself to the name of Jesse Owens. Supposedly, he was “snubbed” by Adolf Hitler, who reportedly refused to congratulate him publicly after his victories. Actually, the story was concocted by American sportswriters, who were all too willing to read the worst of motives into Hitler’s behavior and to assume innocent excellence from America’s newest hero. Although it had no basis in fact, the story of “Hitler’s snub” was repeated so often that people took it as truth. It remains one of the great anecdotes of American popular culture.
For several years after the Berlin Olympics, life did not go smoothly for Owens. American officials had planned a barnstorming tour for the track team immediately after the Berlin Games. At first, Owens cooperated, running exhibitions in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and England. Having received numerous offers from the United States to capitalize on his Olympic fame, he balked when the team departed from London for a series of exhibitions in Scandinavia. The Amateur Athletic Union suspended him from any further amateur competition.
Accompanied by his Ohio State coach, Larry Snyder, Owens returned to the United States only to find that all the “offers” were phony publicity stunts by unscrupulous entrepreneurs. They never seriously intended to give a young black man—not even an Olympic hero—a steady job at decent...
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