Olympic Stories

Jesse Owens - Conquering the World through racial and physical obstacles

Jesse Owens - Conquering the World through racial and physical obstaclesAthletes have taken great strides all throughout this century but few can compare to those of Jesse Owens. He beat all of the odds and even went against what Hitler had in mind by taking part in the Olympics in 1936. This was a tough man who knew what he wanted to accomplish and set out to do just that.

Owens was born as the seventh child in a family of eleven in a small part of Alabama. Though born there he did most of his growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. His parents Henry and Emma were often concerned for his welfare when he was young, as he was always taking ill. Even still he rose above sickness and became one of the worlds greatest Olympians.

His name was not even Jesse at all, it was J.C. but as one of his teachers could not really understand him through his thick accent she began calling him Jesse and it stuck. He used to go wild on the playground at school, always getting into something and then one day, the greatest of his life he said, the junior high track coach plucked him right off of the playground and set him to work training for track meets.

He was known to attribute all of his future Olympic successes to that coach. That coach was Charles Riley and he changed Jesse's life and our history for all time.

Jesse Owens first started to make a splash in the athletic world in 1935 when he set world records in the long jump, the 220 yard dash and the 220 yard low hurdles. No other athlete in history has made such an indelible mark as Jesse did on that day in May. Even if he had not gone onto the Olympics he would be spoken of and revered to this day but it is our good fortune that he did indeed go on and he continued to succeed against all odds both physical and racial.

In the summer of 1936 Jesse owns arrived at the summer Olympics in Berlin. Even though there was hatred all around him in Hitler's Germany he fought hard and won a total of four gold medals. While Germany could only watch and grumble. One can almost see Hitler's face as he watched a black man - who he had depicted as anything but human in German propaganda - beat his pure blooded Germans.

Everyone was thrilled, well, the Americans were thrilled as Jesse's successes but the fourth race was not even supposed to be his. There were two Jewish men named Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller who were meant to run that race. Some have speculated that they were pulled not because they couldn't do it or even because Jesse was better per se but only because Hitler didn't want to be beaten by Jews. A black man was bad enough but he couldn't or wouldn't tolerate being beaten by Jewish people.

It may have worked out for the best though because not only did Jesse Owens win the relay event he set another world record. This was his last even at the Olympics and he went out with pride and success. Even the Germans were impressed and many of them asked him to sign something for them, which he did with grace and aplomb.

While the Germans seemed able to overlook his race the Americans apparently could not. Yes they had an awards benefit for him but he couldn't ride on the regular elevator to get to it, no that was not allowed when you were black. Instead he had to rid the freight elevator. America still had a long way to go before black people would be free of violence and oppression but in reality Jesse Owens started the ball rolling with his amazing talent and heart. He was a determined young man who fought against the odds to beat out all of his competitors and win.

His Olympic medals were not the last that he would see either. In 1976 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Gerald Ford. This was a great honor and one that he cherished. Even after his death at age 66 he continued to win medals and honors such as the Congressional Gold Medal that was awarded by the president at the time George H. W. Bush. And Germany names both a street and a school after him.

Jesse Owens was a man of great strength, courage and character, he was someone that the youth of today can look up to as a hero and a role model and in this day in age that is quite a feat in itself.

Career Highlights
  • 1936 Berlin Olympic Games – Gold (4)

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