James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens († March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona) was a US track and field athlete.
During his active athletic career, he achieved several world records. Owens became internationally known through his participation in the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany. With four gold medals (first place in three sprint disciplines and the long jump), he was their most successful athlete.
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He received the nickname “Jesse” from a teacher. She didn”t understand his accent when he told her he was called J.C. Owens was the youngest child in a family of sharecroppers from Alabama and Ohio. Owens was the youngest of ten children in a sharecropper family that moved to Ohio from Alabama.
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His birth state of Alabama was strictly segregated, so Owens, as an African American, could only have gone to a “black” university after graduating from high school. He preferred to study just north of the Mason-Dixon line at Ohio State University in Columbus. Here he could also compete against whites, provided the competitions were in Ohio and further north, but not further south (across the Ohio River). For such competitions, he had to stay home, so he had a very mixed competition schedule. Owens received a scholarship because of his athletic talent, which, according to the rules, included the high tuition and full board, but not pocket money or money for books, laundry, etc. Thus, like all athletes whose (white andor black) parents could not contribute to their studies, he was dependent on earning extra money. The university helped by employing him as an elevator boy on the university campus and as a page in the Ohio legislature. According to other sources, Owens did not receive a stipend from the university, but the university provided Owens” father with a permanent job. During this time, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression. On-campus housing would have been even more expensive, as black neighborhoods in Ohio were cheaper than white ones. This and his lack of financial resources largely excluded him from the social lives of his teammates. Athletics was already a highly respected sport, and even in high school Owens” talent was spotted and nurtured by its physical education teacher, Charles Riley. In college, Owens was coached by Larry Snyder, who made him the first black team captain at Ohio State University.
On May 24, 1935, Owens reportedly suffered a back injury during a boisterous scuffle in which he fell in the stairwell of the dormitory, whereupon his coach Larry Snyder advised him to cancel his participation in the competition scheduled for the following day. Nevertheless, on May 25, 1935, in Ann Arbor, Michigan at the Big Ten Conference on the University of Michigan athletic fields, Jesse Owens set five new world records in 45 minutes, setting one world record. At 3:15 p.m., he leveled the previous world record in the 100-yard dash at 9.4 s (91.44 m). At 15:25 he jumped the world record distance of 8.13 m, which was only surpassed by Ralph Boston on August 12, 1960. He refrained from further attempts. At 3:45 p.m., he won the 220-yard (201 m) race with 20.3 s, improving the world record by three-tenths of a second. At the same time, this time was recognized as an improvement of the world record over the shorter 200-meter distance. At 4:00 p.m., he became the first runner to break the 23-second mark in the 220-yard hurdles with a time of 22.6 sec. This time was also recognized as the world record for the 200-meter hurdles. The following day, there was little response to Owens” world records in the newspapers, where he was dismissed as an “Ohio State Negro” and had not been interviewed by any reporters the day before.
Sprinter Bob Collier recalled decades later, “Though almost everyone in the field was the faster starter than Jesse, after 30 yards he had the thing decided in his favor.” Hurdler Francis Cretzmeyer described Owens” participation in the long jump competition by saying, “The fact that he did only that single attempt astonished everyone. Jesse jumped very high, higher than the head of the judge sitting at the pit.” Owens” coach Larry Snyder reported, “Jesse seemed to float over the runway. He was virtually caressing it. From the hips up, he practically didn”t move his body – he could have balanced a full coffee cup on his head and not spilled any of it.”
In order to finance sending the Olympic team to Germany, the Olympic elimination competitions were held on July 11-12 at Randalls Island, N.Y., just prior to departure for Germany from New York City. This paid for the athletes (or their clubs or universities) to travel to New York. Olympic qualifying events in all other sports were also held north of the Mason-Dixon Line to ensure that, at least in these, there was no racial discrimination that would have prohibited whites and African Americans from competing in the same sports meet in the southern states.
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Olympic Games 1936
Owens was late in taking a political position in the U.S. press regarding the Olympics in the Third Reich. He did not want to compete in a country that discriminated against dark-skinned and Jewish athletes. He was sharply criticized for this by his coach Larry Snyder and the importance of the Olympic Games for his sports career was made clear to him. Due to the public pressure, the United States Olympic Committee sent an observer, Avery Brundage, to Berlin to report on the conditions there and to decide on the start of the US Olympic athletes. On July 15, 1936, Owens and 382 other U.S. athletes set out for Berlin aboard a ship from New York. Shortly before leaving, Owens made a statement to representatives of the press on board announcing that he wanted to win three medals, in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the long jump. On August 6, 1936, Abraham Adolf Kaiser, a Jew from Duisburg, sent Jesse Owens an anonymous letter urging him to protest racism in Germany.
At the 1936 Olympics, Owens, who stood 1.78 m tall and weighed 75 kg, competed in Adolf Dassler footwear and won four gold medals (100 m, long jump, 200 m and 4 × 100 m), making him the most successful athlete at those Games. Owens later recounted that in the second competition, the long jump, he was in danger of failing in qualifying after two unsuccessful attempts, but that German Luz Long, who had set a new Olympic record at the time, had given him the tip to mark his jump position a few centimeters in front of the actual take-off board to play it safe. Owens followed the advice, qualified and ultimately won gold, while Long took silver. However, this long-held legend has been disproved; the trade journal Der Leichtathlet wrote on August 5, 1936, that both athletes had achieved the required distance on their second attempt. In 1965, Owens admitted to Olympic historian Tom Ecker in an interview, “These are stories people want to hear.” The first to congratulate Owens after his victory, however, was actually Long. Owens later commented, saying:
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Lack of recognition at home
Immediately after the Olympics, Owens was sent to London for more competitions along with Avery Brundage”s U.S. track and field team. The conditions for the athletes there were quite bad, so Owens headed home to the U.S., where he saw his wife again after three months. Because of the cancellation of the European tour of the track and field team, Owens was suspended by Brundage and at the same time he was deprived of the amateur status of the Athletics Federation. This resulted in Owens no longer being allowed to start in sporting events organized by the amateur federation.
After the games, Owens had trouble earning a living, which is why he ended his sports career at the age of 23 on the advice of his coach Larry Snyder. He then did publicity for the sport, but mainly for himself. In 100-meter show races, he gave runners from the region a 10- or 20-meter lead each time and still won. He also competed against racehorses over a distance of 100 yards (91.44 m) and won. He later apologized for these exhibition runs: “It was bad to come down from Olympic heights and compete against animals, but I had to survive somehow, you couldn”t eat the four gold medals.” “I had become a spectacle, a crazy guy.” Later, they found out the trick: Owens started each time against highly irritable thoroughbreds that were so startled at the starting gun that they delayed starting. He also competed against motorcycles and greyhounds, and at a millionaire”s party received $1,000 for a demonstrated long jump on the lawn of his estate.
Owens opened a dry cleaning business and performed in nightclubs as well as vaudevilles. He toured the U.S. as a jazz band conductor, earning a fortune but losing it on the stock market. He was charged with tax fraud and had to declare bankruptcy in 1939. He then set up his own PR agency in the USA. He also worked as a speaker at the Banquet Circuit, where he primarily reported on the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
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It was only after Owens was appointed “Ambassador of Sports” by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955 and sent around the world that his financial situation improved as he received various advertising offers.
In the summer of 1964, Owens visited Berlin again to make a documentary film about his career as an athlete. This production, in which Jesse Owens participated as narrator alongside Luz Long”s older son Kai Long, was released in 1966 under the title Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin.
Owens, who had been a chain smoker for 35 years, died of lung cancer at age 66. He was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. Along with his wife, he left behind three daughters, Marlene Owens Rankin, Beverly Owens Prather and Gloria Owens Hemphill.
In Ann Arbor, where he set six world records in 45 minutes in 1935, a plaque located on the southeast corner of Ferry Field commemorates Jesse Owens” accomplishments.
In 1936, Owens was honored with the Associated Press Sportsman of the Year award.
On the walls of the Marathon Gate of the Berlin Olympic Stadium, the winners of the Olympic competitions have been immortalized. The honorary plaque bearing his name visited Jesse Owens in 1951.
In 1955, Owens was named an “Ambassador of Sports” by Dwight D. Eisenhower and sent around the world.
In 1973, German Consul General Constantin von Dziembowski in Los Angeles presented Owens with the Federal Cross of Merit, 1st Class, awarded by the German President on March 15, 1973. In doing so, he recognized Owens” commitment to international understanding as well as his efforts to correct misconceptions about the German people after World War II.
In 1976, Owens was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford, as well as the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously in 1990 by George H. W. Bush, who called him “an Olympic and American hero, every day of his life” after Jimmy Carter spoke of Owens as a “living legend” during his lifetime.
In 1984, a street was named after him in Berlin, Jesse-Owens-Allee, not far from the Berlin Olympic Stadium. In 198586, a new “Jesse-Owens-Strasse” was named in Nottuln in North Rhine-Westphalia; streets of this name also exist in Augsburg and Bad Schwartau.
The U.S. national team returned to Berlin”s Olympic Stadium for the first time at the 2009 World Championships in Athletics, wearing an emblem on its left chest featuring the initials “JO” as a tribute to Jesse Owens after receiving special permission from the IAAF, the world governing body. Owens” granddaughter Marlene Dortch of Maryland and Long”s granddaughter Julia Vanessa Long of Munster-Hiltrup jointly performed the medal ceremony of the men”s long jump competition. Coinciding with the 2009 World Championships in Athletics, a photo exhibition entitled “Jesse Owens – A Sports Legend” was presented at the House of German Sports not far from the Olympic Stadium.
In 2012, Owens was inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame.
The Olympic gold medals won by Jesse Owens in Berlin in 1936 are among the most famous and valuable medals in sports history. David Kohler, president of the U.S. auction house SCP, speculated to the U.S. sports channel ESPN at the beginning of November 2013 that a seven-figure U.S. dollar amount could be achieved at the upcoming auction of a gold medal won by Jesse Owens.
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It is often claimed that Adolf Hitler, who was present in the stadium during some of Owens” competitions, refused to recognize him for his outstanding achievements. Hitler, however, would not have been in a position to commit a direct affront to Owens at all because, at the intervention of the IOC and in accordance with Olympic protocol, he did not offer his congratulations to any winner from the second day of competition. When Baldur von Schirach suggested that Hitler should have his picture taken with Owens, he reportedly flew into a rage over this “grave insult.” In his autobiography, however, Owens wrote that Hitler stood up and waved at him.
Valerie von Poson, who worked as a secretary for the National Olympic Committee in 1936, accompanied Owens to Hitler”s stand after he won his fourth gold medal. Ralf Schreiber, who accompanied Owens as an official interpreter at the Olympics, reported, “When we were about 30 yards away and Hitler saw us, he stood up and with him two SS Gruppenführer and two generals and they hurriedly left the Hitler stand to avoid touching the hand of an American gold medal winner and Negro.”
Various objections were raised against the persistent rumor that Hitler had refused to shake hands with Owens: According to this, Hitler had indeed not congratulated Jesse Owens personally, but had not shaken hands with any other athlete that day either. On the first day of the Games he had congratulated all German athletes, which got him into trouble with the Olympic Committee. For reasons of Olympic neutrality, he had to congratulate all athletes or none. Hitler decided on the latter and from then on generally no longer shook hands with any athlete as an expression of recognition of his achievements.
Another version is that Hitler shook hands with Owens, but away from the press photographers. In the 1960s, Owens had tried to fight the legend with a photo of the handshake between him and Hitler. But the journalists refused to publish it for ideological reasons:
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Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1945 President of the United States, had not sent Owens a congratulatory telegram to Berlin. Moreover, he refused to receive Owens at the White House. Roosevelt was in the midst of an election campaign at the time and feared the reaction from the Southern states if he honored the “Negro” Owens. Despite winning four gold medals, Owens continued to be denied social recognition in the U.S. and had to take the merchandise elevator at the victory celebration at New York”s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Owens commented on this in reference to Hitler: