Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens was a renowned twentieth century African-American track and field athlete. He was considered the most famous athlete, as he excelled in the sprints and the long jump. He earned fame and respect in the sports world by achieving four gold medals in Olympics.

James Cleveland Owens was born on September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, to Henry Cleveland Owens and Mary Emma Fitzgerald. When he was nine years old, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. The movement was in the light of Great Migration, when 1.5 million African Americans left the segregated South. When he was enrolled at the school he pronounced his name ‘J. C’ in his Southern accent which was mistaken for Jesse and since then he was known as Jesse Owens. In his youth, Owens took up a number of odd jobs from grocery delivering to working in a shoe repair shop. Gradually, he realized his potential for running while he was studying at Fairmount Junior High School. He credited his junior high track coach, Charles Riley, for his success in athletic career.

Later on Owens went on to study at East Technical High School in Cleveland. It was there that his sports talent was recognized at national level. At the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago, he equaled the world record of 9.4 seconds, in the hundred-yard dash and long-jumped 24 feet 9 and half inches. Subsequently, when his father found proper vocation to support the family, Owens enrolled himself at Ohio State University. He was given the title of “Buckeye Bullet” as he won a record eight individual NCAA championships. Despite his successful athletic career, Owen was excluded from white company and had to live off campus with other African-Americans. The discrimination level was so high at that time that his astounding athletic performance was openly ignored when it came to scholarship distribution. Therefore, he had to continue his part-time jobs in order to afford tuition for his education.

1935 is deemed a memorable year for Owens when during the Big Ten meet  he set three world records and tied a fourth, in a span of 45 minutes. The following year, he found himself competing in Summer Olympics in Berlin representing the United States. At that time Germany was still controlled by Adolf Hitler and Nazis who propagated Aryan racial superiority and portrayed blacks an inferior race. Owens showed them hollowness of their racial superiority concept by winning four gold medals. His long jump with a leap of 26 ft 8” set the world record, which stayed for 25 years when Ralph Boston broke it in 1960.

Moreover, he was approached by the founder of the Adidas athletic shoe company, Adi Dassler, during Olympic to sport his company shoes. Thus, he became the first African-American to be sponsored. While media criticized Hitler for leaving the medal-presenting ceremony in the middle to avoid meeting the victors from other nations, Owens defended him. He explained that it was time constraint that resulted in his short leave and Hitler did indeed wave at him from his cabin. The world press continued to paint Hitler ignorant of Owens’ victory. However, later Owens produced an evidence of an unseen side of Hitler’s personality where he is seen shaking hand with him. Subsequently, several noted figures corroborated his story.

In his later life, Jesse Owens developed a severe lung cancer resistant to any drug treatment, due to his chain smoking habit. He eventually passed away in 1980, in Tucson, Arizona and was interred at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.

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