Jesse Owens Biography – American Track and Field Athlete, Olympic Gold Medalist, Life, Legacy

Jesse Owens Biography
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Jesse Owens Biography and Legacy

Jesse Owens was an American track and field athlete, who is often regarded as the greatest and most influential athlete in track and field history.

Owens specialized in sprints and long jumps. He achieved international fame at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he made history by winning four gold medals.


Jesse Owens was born on 12th September 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, to Henry Cleveland Owens and Mary Emma Fitzgerald. He was given the name James Cleveland Owens and was generally called J.C.

Owens’ grandfather had been a slave and his father was a sharecropper.

In 1922, when Owens was 9 years old, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in search of better opportunities, thereby becoming a part of the Great Migration (also known as the Black Migration, or the Great Northward Migration).

The Great Migration was a movement in which an estimated 6 million African-Americans left the segregated south for the urban and industrial northeast, midwest, and west. The main cause for their migration to the northern states was the prevalence of racial segregation and discrimination in the southern states, where Jim Crow laws existed.

African-Americans lived in poor economic conditions throughout the south.

Upon arriving in Cleveland, Owens enrolled at the local school. When his teacher asked him his name to enter in her roll book, he said J.C. But the teacher misheard his name and wrote it down as Jesse, a name that would stick with him for the rest of his life.


Just like many boys his age, Jesse Owens worked multiple menial jobs in his spare time. He worked in a shoe repair shop, while his father and brother worked at a steel mill. He even loaded freight cars and delivered groceries.

It was during these years that Owens discovered his passion for running. He was encouraged to follow his passion by his Fairmount Junior High School track coach Charles Riley.

Riley guided and supported Owens in his early athletic pursuits. Riley even made an exception for Owens, allowing him to practice before school, as he knew that Owens worked in the shoe repair shop after school.

Owens would attribute his success in track and field to Riley’s encouragement and support.

Early Athletic Career

Jesse Owens’ athletic career began in 1928 when he was 15 years old.

Owens set Junior High School records by jumping 22 feet 11 3/4 inches in the long jump and clearing 6 feet in the high jump.

Owens then went on to win all the major track events, including the Ohio State Championship for three consecutive years.

During this period, Jesse Owens met Minnie Ruth Solomon at Fairmount Junior High School, when he was 15 and she was 13. Soon they began dating.

High School Athletics

After leaving Fairmount Junior High School, Jesse Owens enrolled at the East Technical High School in Cleveland.

This was where Owens first came to national attention after he equaled the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100 yards sprint and set a new high school world record of 20.7 seconds in the 220 yards sprint, at the Interscholastic Meet in Chicago.

Owens also set another record by jumping 24 feet 9 1/2 inches at the 1933 National High School Championship.

Owens’ astonishing high school track career attracted a lot of national attention and publicity, resulting in him being recruited by several colleges.

While Owens focused on his athletics career, he and Ruth welcomed their first daughter, Gloria, in 1932.

On 5th July 1935, Owens, aged 22, and Ruth, aged 20, married.

Ohio State University

After his father found steady employment, Jesse Owens chose to go to the Ohio State University, even though the university did not offer him a track scholarship.

At the university, Owens acquired the nickname Buckeye Bullet. He began training under track and field coach and military veteran Larry Snyder.

With Larry’s coaching and guidance, Owens won a record eight individual NCAA Championships, four in 1935 and four in 1936.

But in spite of Owen’s accomplishments in athletics, he had to live outside of the campus along with other African-American athletes. And when he traveled with the university team, he was forced to eat at blacks-only restaurants or order carry-outs and stay at blacks-only hotels.

During this period, since Owens had not received a scholarship, he had to work multiple part-time jobs to pay for school and support his family.

He worked as a waiter, and a night elevator operator, pumped gas, worked in the library stacks and even served a stint as a page in the Ohio Statehouse. He worked on all these jobs between his regular practice sessions and tournaments.

Big Ten Championship

On 25th May 1935, Jesse Owens made history at the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

On that day, Owens set three world records and tied a fourth, thereby achieving track and field immortality in a span of just 45 minutes.

Before the meet, Owens was not even sure he would be able to participate at all, as he was suffering from a sore back after he had fallen down a flight of stairs. However, he managed to convince his coach to let him run in the 100 yards sprint as a test for his back. Surprisingly, he once again equaled the world record of 9.4 seconds.

Owens then went on to set the world record in the 220 yards sprint (20.3 seconds), the 220 yards low hurdles (22.6 seconds), and the long jump (26 feet 8 1/4 inches).

Owens’ world record in the long jump would last for 25 years.

Within 45 minutes, Owens achieved what many still consider to be the greatest athletic feat in history.

His amazing success at the Big Ten Championship gave him confidence for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

The Build-up to the Berlin Olympics

The 1936 berlin Olympics was an important yet controversial event.

The Games were being held in Nazi Germany, where Adolf Hitler openly declared that the Games would prove his belief that the German ‘Aryan’ people were the superior and dominant race.

In late 1935, the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Walter Francis White, wrote a letter to Owens trying to dissuade him from taking part in the 1936 Olympics, saying that Owens should not promote a racist regime after what his race had suffered at the hands of white racists in his own country, America.

But Francis White ended up not sending the letter.

A movement began in favor of boycotting the Olympics just a few months before it was supposed to begin.

Owens was eventually convinced by the NAACP to declare that if there were minorities in Germany who were being discriminated against, the US must withdraw from the Games.

But the American Olympic Committee paid no heed to this plea. The Committee’s president, Avery Brundage, even branded them as un-American agitators.

Eventually, Jesse Owens and other African-American athletes agreed to take part in the Olympics.

Making History in Berlin

Upon arriving in Germany, Jesse Owens was immediately popular. Throngs of fans, many of them young girls, yelled “Where is Jesse?” “Where is Jesse?”

Just before the Games began, the founder of Adidas, Adi Dassler, paid a visit to Owens in the Olympic village and convinced him to wear Gebruder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes. This was the first sponsorship for a male African-American athlete.

The Games began on the 1st of August. Little did Owens know that he was going to become a legend, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest athletes in Olympic history.

On 3rd August, Owens won the 100 meters sprint in 10.3 seconds.

On 4th August, he won the long jump with a leap of 8.06 meters (26 feet 5 inches).

On 5th August, he won the 200 meters sprint in 20.7 seconds.

And on 9th August, he won his fourth gold medal in the 4×100 meters relay, while team USA set the world record of 39.80 seconds in the event.

Jesse Owens had made history. He became the first American track and field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympic. He also proved Hitler’s ‘Master Race’ theory wrong by dominating every event he took part in.

Owens had suddenly become an icon. An inspiration to millions of young people across the world. He became the most famous track and field athlete of the time.

Hitler was accused of not acknowledging and snubbing Owens after his victories. But Owens later claimed that even though Hitler did not shake hands with him, on one occasion, after his 100-meter sprint victory, he passed by Hitler on his way to a broadcast and Hitler waved at him and he waved back.

With his performances, Jesse Owens became the hero and highlight of the 1936 Olympics.

Returning from the Olympics

Upon his return to the US, Jesse Owens was greeted by the Mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia. A parade was held in his honor in Manhattan, along Broadway’s Canyon of heroes.

During this parade, a stranger handed Owens a paper bag, which he later found out contained $10,000 in cash. He never got to know who was the person who handed him the cash.

However, things were still the same for African-Americans in the US, even if one were as famous and successful as Owens.

After the parade in Manhattan, Owens was not allowed to enter through the main doors of the Waldorf Astoria New York (a luxury hotel). Instead, he was forced to travel up to the reception honoring him in a freight elevator.

Even in Nazi Germany, African-American athletes had been allowed to stay and travel with whites. But in their own country, they continued to be discriminated against.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt never invited Owens to the White House after his Olympic victories. In October 1936, Owens famously said to an audience of African-Americans at a Republican rally in Kansas City, that Hitler had not snubbed him, it was his own President who had snubbed him as he did not even send him a telegram.

Owens soon joined the Republican party and was paid to campaign for African-American votes for the Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon.

Stripping Off Owens’ Amateur Status

After the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the entire US Olympic Team was invited to compete in Sweden.

Before that, Jesse Owens thought of capitalizing on his Olympic success by taking up some lucrative endorsement offers. But this was unacceptable to the United States athletic officials, who were furious with Owens. They immediately withdrew his amateur status, bringing his athletic career to an abrupt end.

Owens was left hurt and angry by this decision. He argued that due to the racial discrimination he had faced throughout his athletic career, such as not being eligible for scholarships in College, making it impossible for him to take classes between training and working to pay his way, he was left with no choice but to give up on amateur athletics in order to pursue financial gain elsewhere.

Owens had become famous across the world, but he still found it difficult to find work. He took up whatever menial jobs he could find, working as a playground janitor, gas station attendant, and manager of a dry cleaning firm. He even raced against amateurs and horses for money.

Since Owens was not allowed to make appearances at amateur sporting events to boost his profile, commercial offers stopped coming his way.

New Endeavors

In 1937, Jesse Owens began touring with a twelve-piece jazz band under contract with Consolidated Artists. But his stint in the band was brief, as he was not satisfied with what he was doing.

Owens also made quite a few appearances at baseball games and other sporting events.

In 1939, he was forced to file for personal bankruptcy.

In 1942, Owens’ friend and former competitor from the University of Michigan, Willis Ward, found employment for him at Ford Motor Company as an Assistant Personnel Director.

Owen later went on to become a director and worked in that capacity until 1946.

The West Coast Negro Baseball Association

In 1946, Jesse Owens joined Abe Saperstein (founder, owner, and earliest coach of the Harlem Globetrotters) to form the West Coast Negro Baseball Association.

The West Coast Negro Baseball Association became one of several negro baseball leagues created at a time when organized baseball was segregated.

Owens became the Vice-President and owner of the Portland (Oregon) Rosebuds franchise. He even toured with the teams, sometimes entertaining the audience between doubleheader games by racing against horses.

Unfortunately, barely three months after it was formed, the West Coast Negro Baseball Association disbanded.

Struggling to Make a Living

Despite being a famous athlete, Jesse Owens continued to struggle to make a decent living.

He still tried to make a living by racing local amateurs and racehorses. He would often allow the local amateurs a 10 or 20-yard headstart and then go on to beat them in the 100-yard sprint.

He also challenged and defeated racehorses with a trick he revealed later on. The trick was to race a high-strung Thoroughbred that would be frightened by the starting gun, giving it a bad jump.

Many people criticized Owens for organizing and participating in such races purely meant for entertainment, saying that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse.

But Owens defended himself by saying that he had no choice. He had four gold medals but he could not eat them.

At the time, there were no endorsements, advertising, or television opportunities for African-American athletes.

Chicago Years

In 1949, Jesse Owens and his family moved to Chicago, where Owens opened up a public relations agency. He held executive positions with the Illinois Youth Commission, the South Side Boys Club, and the Mutual of Omaha Insurance Corporation.

In 1953, Governor William G. Stratton appointed Owens as the secretary of the Illinois Youth Commission. The Commission oversaw educational and recreational programs for the youth of the state. Owens would remain a part of the Commission until 1960.

Goodwill Tours

In 1955, Jesse Owens was enlisted as a goodwill ambassador by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

He was sent to the Philippines, Malaya, and India to promote physical exercise as well as to advocate the cause of American freedom and economic opportunity in the developing world.

Owens would continue with his goodwill tours through the 1960s and 1970s.

Financial Troubles and Speaking Engagements

In 1965, Jesse Owens was hired as a running instructor for spring training for the New York Mets, while he continued to work various menial jobs on the side.

To make matters worse, Owens was successfully prosecuted for tax evasion in 1966, as the IRS revealed that he had failed to file tax returns between 1954 and 1962.

During the 60s and 70s, Owens traveled widely, speaking at civic meetings, sports banquets, youth groups, church and professional organizations, black history programs, PTAs, and high schools and colleges.

Owens also acted as a public relations representative and consultant to several corporations, such as the Ford Motor Company, Atlantic Richfield, and the United States Olympic Committee.

He also continued to endorse products for Sears and Roebuck, Quaker Oats, and Johnson & Johnson.

Views on the Black Power Salute

During the medal ceremony of the 200 meters running event of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith (who had won gold) and John Carlos (who had won bronze) each turned to face the American flag and raised a black-gloved fist during the US national anthem.

In addition to this gesture, Smith, Carlos, and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, all wore human rights badges on their jackets.

At the time, the act was regarded as the most overtly political statement in modern Olympics history.

The salute was the traditional Black Power Salute, to protest against the discrimination faced by African-Americans and blacks in general, and it became front-page news around the world.

Jesse Owen’s reaction to the controversial gesture was not kind or supportive. He criticized it, stating that the black fist and the black power salute were meaningless symbols. Because if the fist was opened, there would be nothing but weak and empty fingers.

He further went on to say that the only time the black fist would have any significance was when it would have any money inside it, as that was where the power lay.

However, Owens would later change his view of the gesture. In his 1972 book, I Have Changed, he revised his opinion, saying that he had realized that militancy in the best sense of the word was the only answer where the black man was concerned, that any black man who was not a militant in 1970 was either blind or a coward.

Final Years

In his final years, Jesse Owens continued with his travels, speaking against poverty, racism, and tyranny, and for human rights and freedom.

He devoted his time to helping others, especially people in black communities, underprivileged youth, and young athletes across the world.

In 1972, Owens was invited to the Munich Olympics as a special guest of the West German Government. On his visit there, he met West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and former boxer Max Schmeling.

In the late 1970s, Owens tried his best to convince President Jimmy Carter to withdraw his demand that the US boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Owens argued that the Olympic ideal was supposed to be observed as a time-out from war and that it was above politics.


In the early days of December 1979, Jesse Owens was hospitalized on and off with an aggressive, drug-resistant type of lung cancer. This was probably a result of him being a chain smoker for almost 35 years.

On 31st March 1980, Owens, aged 66, died in Tucson, Arizona, with his family at his bedside.

Owens was interred at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. The grave, set against the backdrop of the lake in the cemetery, is inscribed Jesse Owens 1936 Olympic Champion.

Words of sympathy and admiration came in from all over the world.

President Jimmy Carter too issued a tribute to Owens saying, “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty, and racial bigotry.”


Jesse Owens is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential athletes of the 20th century.

His influence in the world of track and field, especially among underprivileged youth, has been unparalleled.

Owens’ 1936 Olympic exploits made him the first internationally famous and revered track and field athlete.

Throughout his lifetime, Owens has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors. In 1970, Owens was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

In 1972, the Ohio State University awarded him with an honorary doctorate of athletics arts.

In 1974, he was inducted into the US Track and Field Hall of Fame and in 1976 he was awarded the highest civilian honor in the US, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Gerald Ford.

In 1979, he was awarded the Living Legend Award by President Jimmy Carter.

In 1981, the USA Track and Field (USATF) created the Jesse Owens Award, which is the highest accolade for the year’s best track and field athlete.

In 1983, Owens was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame.

In 1999, he was ranked the 6th greatest North American athlete of the 20th century and the highest-ranked in his sport by ESPN.

The same year, he was on the six-man shortlist for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Century.

Over the course of his lifetime, stadiums and streets were named after him. Statues were made in his honor. And museums were created to honor his track and field career.

In 1984, the street south of the Olympic stadium in Berlin was renamed Jesse-Owens-Allee. And the dormitory that Owens occupied during the Berlin Olympics has been fully restored into a living museum, with pictures of his accomplishments at the Games.

In 2001, the Ohio State University dedicated Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium for track and field events, with a sculpture honoring Owens in the esplanade leading to the rotunda entrance to Ohio Stadium. The campus also houses three recreational centers for students and staff named in his honor.

In 2016, the first Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award (created to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Owens’ four-gold-medal performance at the Berlin Olympics), awarded to recognize people serving as an inspiration to society, was posthumously awarded to another sporting legend, the great Muhammad Ali himself.

There have also been several documentaries and films made on Jesse Owens. The most famous of them is the 1984 Emmy Award-winning biographical television film, The Jesse Owens Story, and the 2016 film Race.

Jesse Owens will forever be remembered as one of the greatest athletes of all time. One who inspired and assisted young athletes, instilling in them a sense of hope and confidence, a will to dream and achieve whatever they wished to achieve.

He is truly an icon of the sporting world. An athlete who became one of the most successful athletes in Olympic and track and field history.

And perhaps, most importantly, Jesse Owens was the athlete who single-handedly crushed and discredited Hitler’s theory of Aryan supremacy.

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