The Story of Jesse Owens: One of America’s Greatest Runners of All Time

Usain Bolt may have been the fastest, and Michael Phelps may have been the most decorated Olympian of all time, but few people have had a greater global impact on the sporting world or personified Olympic values more than Jesse Owens. Winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, an event presided over by Adolf Hitler, the young African American man became an important symbol in the struggle for equality.

Jesse Owens was born in 1913 in Oakville, Alabama.

Born James Cleveland Owens, his childhood nickname was JC. Owens was the youngest of ten children. His grandfather was born into slavery.

Owens’ family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, when he was 9 years old. Owens acquired the name “Jesse” when a schoolteacher mistook his pronunciation of “JC,” owing to Owens’ strong Southern accent.

It was at Fairmount Junior High School that Owens first realized his passion for running, under the guidance of his track coach, Charles Riley. Later in life, he would attribute much of his success to Riley. In 1933, Owens attracted national attention at the National High School Championship in Chicago by jumping 24 feet, 9 ½ inches in the long jump event, as well as equaling the 9.4-second world record in the 100-yard dash.

Owens went on to attend Ohio State University, where he won eight individual NCAA championships. Despite his athletic success, Owens was restricted to Black-only hotels and restaurants when travelling with the team, due to segregation. And despite his impressive sporting achievements, Owens was not offered a scholarship by the school and was forced to work part-time jobs to pay for his studies.

On May 25, 1935, Jesse Owens set four world athletic records in 45 minutes.

He made quite an impression at a Big Ten meet hosted by the University of Michigan, establishing new world records in the 220-yard sprint, the long jump, and the 220-yard low hurdles. He also equaled the record for the 100-yard sprint.

The NAACP urged Jesse Owens to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Walter Francis White, secretary of the NAACP, wrote to Owens, although the letter was reportedly never actually sent. In the letter, White contended that, as an African American, Jesse Owens should not promote the racist Nazi German regime, given what Black people had already suffered at the hands of white supremacists in his own country.

In the months leading up to the 1936 Olympics, a US movement lobbying for a boycott of the Berlin Games gained momentum. The NAACP subsequently convinced Owens to release a statement saying that if minorities in Germany were being discriminated against, the USA should withdraw from the 1936 Olympics. Nevertheless, Owens and others ultimately decided to compete at the games after American Olympic Committee President branded them “un-American agitators.”

Owens and his teammates sailed to the 1936 Berlin Olympics on the SS Manhattan.

Owens’ reputation had preceded him, according to fellow US sprinter James LuValle, who recounted that when Owens arrived at the Olympic stadium in Berlin, a crowd of young girls called out “Where is Jesse? Where is Jesse?” in German.

Jesse Owens was visited by Adi Dassler, founder of the Adidas shoe company, prior to the start of the Berlin Olympics. Dassler persuaded Owens to compete in Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes. This marked the first sports sponsorship for a Black athlete.

Hitler was said to have been greatly agitated by Owens’ series of triumphs.

With 90,000-strong crowds of German spectators cheering on the young Black athlete to four gold medals, Owens’ success jarred with Hitler’s vision of Nazi Germany and white supremacy. According to government officials, Hitler had hoped for German athletes to dominate the competition and pledged that Black competitors would be excluded from all future games. Nevertheless, Owens disputed claims that Hitler had snubbed him, pointing instead to the U.S. president, who did not even send him a customary telegram.

Throughout his time at the Berlin Olympics, despite the prevalent fascism in the country at the time, Owens had been allowed to stay in the same hotels as his white teammates, while back in his own country, he was forced to stay in Black-only hotels. Indeed, on his homecoming, Owens was made to enter his own celebratory reception at New York’s Waldorf Astoria via a freight elevator. President Roosevelt also neglected to invite Owens to the White House. When the Democrats reached out to Owens for support in the 1936 presidential race, he endorsed Roosevelt’s Republican opponent, Alf Landon, instead.

Owens’ four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics were not equaled until 1984.

Owens’ gold medals at the 1936 Games were for the 100-meter sprint, the 200-meter sprint, the long jump, and the 4 x 100 relay. Nearly 50 years later, it was Carl Lewis who finally equaled that four-medal total at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

In addition, it was not until 2016 until the Black athletes who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics were recognized by the White House. President Barack Obama finally honored the achievements of Owens and his Black teammates, inviting relatives of the athletes to a special event at the White House to celebrate their lives and sporting accomplishments.

Douglas Healy is a Springfield, Missouri-based attorney with nearly 20 years of legal experience.