Olympic August: Jesse Owens

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Photo: Jesse Owens races in a preliminary heat of the 200-meter dash at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany.
Credit: © AP Photo

On Aug. 3, 1936—80 years ago today—African American track and field star Jesse Owens won the gold medal in the men’s 100-meter dash at the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. It was the first of four gold medals that Owens would win over the next week—a remarkable performance by a remarkable athlete. Owens’s accomplishment transcended the sports world, however, and took on a much greater importance. The Nazis controlled Germany in 1936, and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler hoped the Olympics would help prove—athletically, anyway—his theory of Aryan racial superiority. Aryanwas a term the Nazis used for Germans and certain other white peoples of northern Europe. Owens (and his American teammates) disappointed Hitler, but he won the admiration of the crowds watching in Berlin. Owens’s Olympic performance made him one of the most famous athletes in sports history.

In the 100-meter dash, Owens edged out his African American teammate Ralph Metcalf by 1/10th of a second to win gold. German runner Erich Borchmeyer finished a “distant” fifth (4/10th of a second behind Owens). The next day, August 4, Owens set an Olympic record in the broad jump (now called the long jump), winning gold over German jumper Luz Long. On August 5, Owens set a world record in the 200-meter dash, nosing out another African American teammate, Mack Robinson (older brother of baseball legend Jackie Robinson). Four days later, Owens and Metcalfe joined American teammates Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff in the 400-meter relay, setting a world record and winning gold over the second-place Italian team and third-place Germans.

Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama, near Danville, on Sept. 12, 1913. His given and family name was James Cleveland Owens. His nickname, Jesse, came from his initials, J. C. Owens was the son of a sharecropper. At the age of 9, he moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio. Owens excelled in track and field while attending Ohio State University from 1933 to 1936. At a college meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1935, he broke three world records and tied a fourth within 45 minutes. Owens set seven world records during his career.

Owens eventually went into the public relations business. He worked in community service, especially youth work. He traveled widely, giving many speeches that supported clean living, fair play, and patriotism. Owens believed that athletic competition could help solve racial and political problems. He died on March 31, 1980. Owens’s many honors include the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. In Berlin, a street near the Olympiastadion (Olympic Satdium) is named for Owens, as is a nearby school.

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