Thousands of athletes have distinguished themselves and earned acclaim for their schools in the storied 114-year history of the Big Ten Conference, but no individual’s accomplishments cast a larger shadow than those of Jesse Owens. In 1936, three years before the world went back to war, his fleet feet and indomitable spirit struck a telling blow against Adolph Hitler’s plans for worldwide Nazi domination.
A sharecropper’s son and grandson of a slave, James Cleveland Owens was born Oakville, Ala., in 1913 and was known as “J.C.” to his parents and 10 siblings. The family moved to Cleveland when he 9 years old so his father could pursue a factory job, and J.C. Owens became Jesse Owens when a teacher who had asked him his name misunderstood his response and entered “Jesse” instead of “J.C.” in school records.
As Jesse Owens, the young man would leave his mark on history.
At his junior high school, he was steered toward track and field when a teacher named Charles Riley took note of his speed and agility in playground games. Owens had dealt with asthma and related bronchial issues throughout a rather sickly childhood, and running helped him acquire strength and stamina.
“I always liked running. It was something you could do by yourself and under your own power,” Owens said. “You could go in any direction, seeking out new sights just on the speed of your feet and the strength of your lungs.”
Owens became a track-and-field prodigy at Cleveland’s East Technical High School, equaling the world record for the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds) and long jumping a world-class 24 feet, 9 inches at the national high school meet in Chicago in 1933.
Moving on to Ohio State, he became a national star as the “Buckeye Bullet.” If Red Grange’s four touchdowns in 12 minutes in the 1924 Illinois-Michigan game were a seminal moment for college football, Owens provided a comparably historic one for track and field when he set three world records and tied a fourth within 45 minutes at the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor in 1935.
First he sprinted to a 9.4 clocking in the 100, tying the record he shared with several others. He then long jumped 26 feet 8 ¼ inches on his first attempt, establishing a record that would last 25 years. Next came a 20.3 clocking in the 220-yard dash, followed by a 22.6 effort in the 220-yard low hurdles.
Seventy-five years after it took place, Owens’ single-day performance is still regarded as the greatest individual accomplishment in track and field history. He would go on to win first-place medals in all four events at the 1935 NCAA championships and duplicate the feat in 1936, still the only athlete to claim eight individual NCAA titles. His explanation for his success was eloquent yet simple.
“I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible,” Owens said.
During his junior year at Ohio State, Owens competed in 42 events and won them all. But his most significant triumphs were yet to come.
The 1936 Olympics would take place in Berlin, and Hitler intended to use them to promote the Nazi movement and his theory of an Aryan “master race.” But Jesse Owens proved to be a gloriously stubborn obstacle to those plans. He won four gold medals in a storybook performance that established the humble sharecropper’s son as the world’s greatest athlete beyond question.
Before a crowd of 110,000 fans at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, Owens won the 100-meter dash in 10.3 seconds, edging teammate Ralph Metcalfe, a fellow African American. After fouling on his first two qualifying attempts in the long jump, Owens soared 26-3 ¾ and 26-5 ½ on his last two jumps of the finals to win a second gold medal. Luz Long, the silver medalist and a German rival, had given him a tip on how to approach the takeoff board to avoid fouling, much to Hitler’s dismay.
On his final, gold-clinching jump, “I decided I wasn’t going to come down,” Owens said. “I was going to fly. I was going to stay in the air forever.”
His 200-meter gold medal was less dramatic, achieved in 20.7 seconds. Owens’ fourth gold medal came about after he and Metcalfe were added to the U.S.’
4×100-meter relay team in place of teammates Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, who happened to be Jews. Amid claims that U.S. officials had knuckled under to Hitler’s toxic anti-Semitism by grounding Glickman and Stoller, Owens and Metcalfe led the team to a gold medal in a stunning time of 39.8 seconds, a world record that stood for 20 years.
Upon returning to the U.S., Owens and his teammates were honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City. But he had to ride a freight elevator to his own reception at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, a grim reminder that African-American heroes were still a long way from acceptance in the Land of the Free.
“It became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to pat me on the back and shake my hand, but no one was going to offer me a job,” Owens said.
Promised commercial opportunities never materialized, and for a time he resorted to gimmicks like running against racehorses to support himself.
“I couldn’t eat four gold medals,” Owens said.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower provided some long overdue recognition when he appointed Owens an Ambassador to Sport in 1955. Owens subsequently established a public relations agency, was involved in youth work and remained in demand as a motivational speaker until his death from lung cancer at age 66 in 1980. His wife Minnie, whom he met in junior high school, and three daughters survived him.
President Gerald R. Ford awarded Owens the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1976. USA Track and Field recognizes the sport’s top performer each year with the Jesse Owens Award, and the track and field stadium at Ohio State also bears the name of a man whose life was a symbol of honor, achievement and fortitude.
“Find the good—it’s all around you,” Owens once said in summarizing his approach to life. “Find it and showcase it, and you’ll start believing it.”