Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games. One need not be the most ardent of Olympic fans to know that fact. (Fewer among you may know numerous experts don’t view this as his greatest athletic achievement.) One need not be an expert on the history of segregation in American society to surmise that, as an African American in the first half of the 20th century, Owens had some challenges to overcome. The source of inspiration for this story arises from the detail and magnitude of his accomplishments and of the challenges he faced, throughout his life, a review of which has forced me to wonder whether he succeeded despite these challenges or, due to his frightening determination and resilience, because of them. I hope to do him justice.
A sickly child
J.C. Owens was born in 1913, the youngest of thirteen children, on a farm in Alabama. His father worked on a farm, where J.C. and his siblings (some of whom died when he was young) were also put to work. By the age of seven he was expected to pick 100 pounds of cotton a day, a tall order for a sickly child who, partly due to inadequate housing, food and clothing, suffered from chronic bronchial congestion and several bouts of pneumonia. When he was nine, his family moved to Cleveland, as part of the Great Migration, where he attended school. During roll call one day, a teacher asked him his name. He replied “J.C.” which, given his thick Southern accent, the teacher interpreted as “Jesse”, the name by which he would henceforth be known.
A talent discovered
Owens began his athletic career at Fairmount Junior High, under the guidance of track coach Charles Riley. Given that he had to support his family in his spare time, by delivering groceries, loading freight cars and working in a shoe repair shop, Riley allowed him to practice before school. Owens would, throughout his life, attribute his athletic success to Riley, who not only coached him, but, having sympathy for the sickly youth, brought him food in the mornings and invited him home for dinner in the evenings. On Riley’s nutritional programme, and under his technical guidance, Owens grew stronger. He met with success at the schools level but had yet to achieve nationwide fame. This duly came when, at the age of 20 and while attending East Technical High School, he equalled the world 100 yard record, clocking 9.4 seconds (having broken the world broad jump, otherwise known as the standing long jump, record the previous week).
A historic performance
Jesse’s athletic prowess initiated a flood of college offers, from which he selected Ohio State University. Despite his proven abilities, Owens was not offered a scholarship and had to work several jobs, including elevator operator, waiter and petrol attendant, to afford his tuition fees. In his junior (third) year, Owens was undefeated in 42 events, including a memorable performance at the Big Ten Finals (a Midwestern intervarsity meet) in Michigan. Nobody had expected much as, a week prior, Owens had been horsing around with a fraternity brother and had hurt his back following a bout of wrestling which had culminated in their falling down the stairs. His back hurt to the extent that his coach and teammates had to help him into the car ahead of their journey to Michigan and, once there, had help him out of it. He tried in vain to ease his back trouble by bathing in ice water for half an hour. Unable to stretch (and having been unable to train for the previous week), many suggested he withdraw. He did quite the opposite.
At 3.15pm, he equalled the 100 yard world record, which he jointly held (again running 9.4 seconds). By 4pm he had broken the world records for the long jump (managing just one attempt, in which he leapt 8.13m, a mark that would be bettered only twenty five years later), the 220 yard dash (and concurrently, the 200m) as well as the 220 yard low hurdles (concurrently, the 200 metre low hurdles). Numerous experts today cite this 45 minute display, during which he broke six world records, as the greatest athletic achievement in history.
A political statement
The following year, Owens was ready for the 1936 Games in Berlin, which Hitler and his Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (or “Propagandaministerium”, headed by Joseph Goebbels) viewed as the perfect opportunity to showcase their racial policies, enshrined in a Nazi doctrine which asserted the superiority of the “Aryan Race” (a master race of people of northern European descent) and the inferiority of other racial groups (including blacks) which were classified as Untermensch (“sub-human”). A few weeks prior, the German press had applied an Aryan interpretation to German boxer Max Schmeling’s heavyweight boxing defeat of African American champion Joe Louis. Ahread of the Games, they criticized the American team (10 of which, out of 66, were black) for relying on “black auxiliaries”.
Owens, once ensconced in the athlete’s village, was visited by Adi Dassler (who had formed the “Brothers Shoe Company”, roughly translated, with sibling Rudi) who, in the first ever sponsorship of an African American athlete, invited, and convinced, Owens to use the Dassler Brothers’ shoes. Owens participated in four events, winning gold medals in all, tieing the world 100m record, setting Olympic records for the long jump and 200m and helping his teammates to a world record in the 4x100m relay (which stood for 20 years):
Of all the events, it was the long jump that Owens found most challenging. In the preliminary rounds, he fouled twice (overstepping the board) and was on the verge of disqualification. Luz Long, the European Champion from Germany and Owens’ stiffest completion, had been looking forward to jumping against Owens and refused to let the contest fizzle out. He advised Owens to take off a foot before the board, for he would still reach the qualifying distance. Owens did so, qualified for the final and traded the lead with Long, ultimately beating him into silver. Long was the first to congratulate him. In Owens’ words, “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 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.”
A lack of recognition
Following Owens’ victories, Hitler did not shake his hand, prompting allegations that Hitler had snubbed him. On the first day of the Games, Hitler had shaken the hands of only the German medal winners. The IOC informed him that this was not in the spirit of the Games, demanding that he either shake all athletes’ hands or none at all. He opted for the latter and attended no further medal ceremonies.
Owens returned to America a hero, the first American athlete to win four gold medals at a single Games, a feat not repeated until the Los Angeles games in 1984, when compatriot Carl Lewis (also from Alabama) won gold medals in the same four events that Owens had, ultimately cashing in on his athletic success to the tune of c.$20 million. Segregation, however, remained rife. When travelling to competitions he had to eat at “black only” restaurants and stay at “black only” hotels. He said, “”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.” Owens had to ride the freight elevator down a reception, in his honour, at the Waldorf Astoria.
An unfortunate decline…
The next few years were not kind to Owens. Businessmen paid him for the right to use his name on their stores but none would offer him a permanent job. Shortly after the Games, he became ineligible to compete for Ohio University due to poor academic standing. Forced to make ends meet, not least because his second child had just been born, he accepted low paying odd jobs and founded a dry cleaning company. He filed for bankruptcy a year later. His third child was born the year after that, shortly before he withdrew from Ohio University. By 1945, Owens had become a pack a day smoker and was accepting fees to race professional baseball players (always giving them a headstart), racehorses (who he later admitted selecting based on their skittishness, knowing that he would have an advantage once they were distressed by the starting gun), motorbikes, cars, trucks and dogs. Many criticised him for behaving in a manner not befitting of an Olympic champion and role model, to which he retorted, “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals. Sure, it bothered me. But at least it was an honest living. I had to eat.”
… and subsequent redemption
Fate, however, finally smiled kindly on Owens, his four gold medals and numerous world record performances ultimately changing his life. He was appointed the Director of National Fitness by the U.S. Office of Civilian Defense and, the following year, hired by Ford Motor Co. as Assistant Personnel Director of African-American workers, before being promoted to Director and working in public relations. In 1950, he and his family moved to Chicago, where he established a public relations agency. His reputation flourished, aided by his achievements finally receiving the recognition they deserved, including the tile “greatest track athlete of the past half-century” (Associated Press, 1950), induction into the US Track and Field Hall of Fame (1974) and a doctorate from Ohio University. He finally received formal recognition from the White House forty years after the Berlin Games, when President Gerald Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given by the U.S. government.
A lasting legacy
In 1979, Owens was diagnosed with lung cancer and died the following year. In the preceding three decades, he had travelled the world, giving speeches and running athletic clinics. In his final years, instead of running against racehorses, he owned racehorses that raced for him. Upon his death, President Jimmy Carter remarked, “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry.”
Jesse Owens’ name lives on in many forms, including the Jesse Owens Memorial Plaza outside Ohio Stadium, Jesse Owens Memorial Park in Alabama and Jesse Owens Allee, a street near the Berlin Olympic Stadium. In 2009 at the World Championships and on the same track that Owens achieved his 100m Olympic gold medal, Usain Bolt, wearing Puma shoes, set the current 100m world record, clocking 9.58 seconds. (During World War II, Adi and Rudi Dassler had a bitter feud, dissolved their joint company and formed Adidas and Ruda (later rebranded Puma), respectively.) A week after Bolt’s performance, and at the same competition, Marlene Dortch (Jesse Owens’ granddaughter) and Kai and Julia-Vanessa Long (son and granddaughter of Luz Long) hosted a press conference, where they spoke about the mutual legacies of their families.