2016 marks 70 years since Jesse Owens’ historic quadruple-gold-winning performance destroyed Hitler’s myth of white supremacy in his own backyard at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
He used the track to pave a platform for athletes of color from around the world –including East St. Louis’ own Jackie Joyner-Kersee – to shine and dominate on sports’ biggest stage in the arena of track and field.
Next week, the story of Owens’ sprint from Ohio State University track-and field-phenomenon to American hero hits theatres, thanks to the Stephen Hopkins film “Race” starring Stephan James and Jason Sudekis.
While the film’s focus is narrowed to the window of Owens’ meteoric rise to the top of track and field, it offers glimpses of the inner turmoil he faced as he wrestled with the idea of representing a country on a global stage that treated his people less than human at home.
Because his name is synonymous with Olympic greatness and U.S.A.’s domination of the modern Olympiad, there are no spoiler alerts necessary.
Some didn’t agree with his political or professional choices upon his return, but the fact that his commitment to excellence uplifted a people – and athletes for generations – is indisputable.
James Cleveland Owens was the youngest of 10 children, three girls and seven boys, born to Henry Cleveland Owens and Mary Emma Fitzgerald in Oakville, Alabama, on September 12, 1913.
His father was a sharecropper. His grandparents were slaves.
J.C., as he was called, was nine years old when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio as part of the Great Migration.
When his new teacher asked his name during attendance, he said “J.C.”, but because of his strong Southern accent, she thought he said “Jesse.” The name stuck, and he was known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.
Owens first came to national attention as an athlete when he was a student of East Technical High School in Cleveland. During the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago, he tied the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard (91 m) dash and long-jumped 24 feet 9 1⁄2 inches.
He attended The Ohio State University. Known as the “Buckeye Bullet,” Owens won a record eight individual NCAA championships, four each in 1935 and 1936.
Though Owens enjoyed athletic success, he had to live off campus with other African-American athletes. When he traveled with the team, Owens was restricted to ordering carry-out or eating at “blacks-only” restaurants. Similarly, he had to stay at “blacks-only” hotels. Owens did not receive a scholarship for his efforts, so he continued to work part-time jobs to pay for school.
During the 1935 Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he set three world records and tied a fourth (100 yard dash, long jump, 220 yard sprint and 220 yard low hurdles) in the span of 45 minutes.
His Big Ten domination set the stage for Olympic history.
Owens took home individual gold medals in the 100m sprint, 200m sprint and long jump.
He won his fourth gold medal in the 4x100 sprint relay when Jewish-American sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller were replaced with Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, who teamed with Frank Wykoff and Foy Draper to set a world record of 39.8 in the event.
He is one of only four sprinters in modern Olympic history to win four or more gold medals in a single Olympic games.
Owens’ performance was not equaled until Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
During his Olympic performance, Owens wore personally handcrafted leather track shoes by German shoemaker Adolf “Adi” Dassler. His triumph ultimately helped Dassler to successfully launch the Adidas shoe brand a decade later.
Life after Olympic gold
When Owens returned to the states, an estimated 1.5 million people gathered for a parade to celebrate when he arrived in New York City. Yet he received no recognition from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he was forced to use the colored entrance for a dinner in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria.
And in spite of his fame, Owens struggled for money and began to participate in stunt races against dogs, motorcycles and even horses during halftime of soccer matches and between doubleheaders of Negro League baseball games.
“People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse,” Owens once said, “but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
Owens would have to wait 40 years for his performance in Berlin to receive recognition from a U.S. president. In 1976 President Gerald Ford presented Owens with the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. bestows upon a civilian.
Owens, a-pack-a-day smoker for 35 years, died of lung cancer at age 66 on March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona.
In 1981, USA Track and Field introduced the Jesse Owens Award. The annual recognition is the highest accolade for the best performers in the sport. Joyner-Kersee became the first athlete to win the award back to back (1986 and 1987).
In 1984, a street outside Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, where Owens shot to fame, was rechristened Jesse-Owens-Allee. The section of the Olympic Village where he stayed during the 1936 Summer Olympics features displays about the American champion.
A decade after his death, President George H.W. Bush posthumously awarded Owens the Congressional Medal of Honor. Bush called his victories in Berlin “an unrivaled athletic triumph, but more than that, a triumph for all humanity.”
“Race” opens in theatres nationwide on Friday, February 19. The film is rated PG.