He was the grandson of a slave, and was often sick with what his mother called “the devil’s cold”. He lived in a ghetto, delivered groceries, loaded freight cars and worked in a shoe repair shop. Jesse Owens’ early life epitomized the difficulties of African-Americans in the early to mid 20th century. But there was one thing that separated him from the rest: he was fast, really fast.
Jesse Owens’ first moment of glory came during his high school days, when he equaled the World Record for the 100 yard (91 meter) dash. As a collegiate athlete, he broke three world records, and tied another, within 45 minutes at the 1935 NCAA Big Ten Meet. He equaled the world record for the 100 yard (91 m) dash (9.4 seconds) and set world records in the long jump (26 feet 8¼ inches (8.13 m), a world record that would last 25 years), 220 yard (201 m) dash (20.7 seconds), and the 220 yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds to become the first person to break 23 seconds).
But it is for his achievements during the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin during the Nazi reign, for which he is mostly remembered. For Hitler, the Games were an opportunity to show to the World the superiority of the Aryan race. Owen’s achievements in the NCAA meets had earned him the opportunity to represent the US at the Games. He went on to win gold medals in long jump, 100 meter sprint, 200 meter sprint and the 4X100 meter relay. In doing, so he became the first American to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad, a feast that would not be matched until the Los Angeles Games in 1984.
Jesse Owens was suddenly a hero, but, ironically, in Germany and not his own country. During his events, he was cheered on enthusiastically by some 110,000 people present at the Olympic Stadium. Ordinary Germans would request him for an autograph. He was allowed to travel in the same trains and stay in the same hotels as the whites, something that was not allowed back in the US. On his return, a parade was held in his honour in New York, but he had to use a freight elevator to attend his own reception at the Waldorf-Astoria. When Owens was asked about reports that Hitler never personally came to him to acknowledge his achievements, he said “Hitler didn’t snub me—it was FDR (the then US President Franklin D. Roosevelt) who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” Owens’ was not invited to the White House or bestowed any honour by either Franklin D. Roosevelt or his successor Harry Truman. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower named him an “Ambassador of Sports”, becoming the first US President to acknowledge his achievements.
Jesse Owens’ sporting career ended with the Olympics, when he decided against traveling to Sweden for another meet wanting to cash in on his achievements back home. The US officials were livid and withdrew his amateur status. From then on, Owens worked as a Sports Promoter, and would occasionally run as an entertainer. He would give local runners a ten or twenty yard lead and beat them at the 100 yard dash. He also challenged, at beat, racehorses, although he later accepted that those races were fixed. He soon found himself working as a dry-cleaner and even a gas service attendant. Bankruptcy followed and he was successfully charged with tax evasion in 1966. He began to work as a US Goodwill ambassador, speaking to companies like Ford and the United States Olympic Association.
A pack a day smoker, Owens died of lung cancer at the age of 66. Just before his death, he tried to convince President Jimmy Carter not to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics, arguing the Games would be an ideal time-out from politics and war. A street in Berlin was renamed after him in 1984, and his birthplace of Oakville dedicated a park in his honour. Two postage stamps were published, one in 1990 and another in 1998, to commemorate his achievements during his life.
Owens’ story, to this day, serves as an inspiration to athletes. Carl Lewis, who became the first American to match Jesse Owens’ record haul of four Golds in an Olympiad, has spoken of how Owens was his idol and how his father would tell him tales of the 1936 Games. Owens was a true sportsman, and believed in competing in good spirit. Owens would undoubtedly be remembered forever as one of the finest athletes of the modern era.
[Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blackheritage/1013187845/]