THE BIG READ- JESSE OWEN
Friday, August 22, 2008
His stunning victories and achievement of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin has made him the best remembered of all Olympic athletes.
Fast and fierce, Jesse Owens sprinted his way into the history books.
James Cleveland Owens was born September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, the seventh child of Mr. and Mrs. Henry and Emma Owens. When James (J.C.) was nine years old, his parents decided to move the whole family to Cleveland, Ohio. They did not have much money, and J.C.'s father was hoping to find a better job there.
When they arrived in Cleveland, J.C. was enrolled in a public school. On his first day of class when the teacher asked his name, she heard Jesse, instead of J.C. due to his southern drawl. He would be called Jesse from that point forward.
Cleveland was not as prosperous as Henry and Emma had hoped and the family remained very poor. Jesse took on different jobs in his spare time. He delivered groceries, loaded freight cars and worked in a shoe repair shop. It was during that time that Jesse discovered he enjoyed running, which would prove to be the turning point in his life.
One day in gym class, the students were timed in the 60-yard dash. When Coach Charlie Riley saw the raw, yet natural talent that young Jesse had, he immediately invited him to run for the track team. Although Jesse was unable to participate in after-school practices because of work, Coach Riley offered to train him in the mornings. Jesse agreed.
At Cleveland East Technical High School Jesse became a track star. As a senior, he tied the world record in the 100-yard dash with a time of 9.4 seconds, only to tie it again while running in the Interscholastic Championships in Chicago. While in Chicago, he also leaped a distance of 24 feet 9 5/8 inches in the broad jump.
Many colleges and universities tried to recruit Jesse. However he chose to attend Ohio State University. Here Jesse met some of his fiercest competition, and not just on the track. The United States was still struggling to desegregate in 1933, which led to many difficult experiences for Jesse. He was required to live off campus with other African-American athletes. When he traveled with the team, Jesse could either order carryout or eat at "blacks-only" restaurants.
Likewise, he slept in "blacks-only" hotels. On occasion, a "white" hotel would allow the black athletes to stay, but they had to use the back door, and the stairs instead of the elevator. Because Jesse was not awarded a scholarship from the university, he continued to work part-time jobs to pay for school.
At the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, Jesse set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes. Jesse had an ailing back the entire week leading up to the meet in Ann Arbor. He had fallen down a flight of stairs, and it was questionable whether he would physically be able to participate in the meet.
He received treatment right up to race time. Confident that the treatment helped, Jesse persuaded the coach to allow him to run the 100-yard dash. Remarkably, each race timer had clocked him at an official 9.4 seconds, once again tying the world record.
This convinced Owens' coach to allow him to participate in his other events. A mere 15 minutes later, Jesse took his first attempt it the broad jump. Prior to jumping, Jesse put a handkerchief at 26 feet 2_ inches, the distance of the world record. After such a bold gesture, he soared to a distance of 26 feet 8_ inches, shattering the old world record by nearly six inches.
Disregarding the pain, Jesse proceeded to set a new world record in the 220-yard dash in 20.3 seconds, besting the old record by three-tenths of a second. Within the next 15 minutes, Jesse was ready to compete in another event, this one being the 220-yard low hurdles. In his final event, Owens' official time was 22.6 seconds. This time would set yet another world record, beating the old record by four-tenths of a second. Jesse Owens had completed a task that had never been accomplished in the history of track and field. He had set three new world records and equaled a fourth.
By the end of his sophomore year at Ohio State, Jesse realized that he could be successful on a more competitive level. Jesse entered the 1936 Olympics, which to many are known as the "Hitler Olympics." These games were held in Nazi Germany, and Hitler was going to prove to the world that the German "Aryan" people were the dominant race. Jesse had different plans, however, and by the end of the games even German fans cheered for him.
Jesse was triumphant in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and the broad jump. He was also a key member of the 400-meter relay team that won the Gold Medal. In all but one of these events Jesse set Olympic records. Jesse was the first American in the history of Olympic Track and Field to win four gold medals in a single Olympics.
Despite his success, the financial instability of the Owens family continued. Shamefully, at that time in America Jesse was not offered any endorsement deals because he was black. In an effort to provide for his family, Jesse left school before his senior year to run professionally. For a while he was a runner-for-hire, racing against anything from people, to horses, to motorcycles. The Negro Baseball league often hired him to race against thoroughbred horses in an exhibition before every game. Jesse even raced against the some of the Major Leagues fastest ballplayers, always giving them a 10-yard head start before beating them.
Jesse also took numerous public-speaking engagements, and emerged an articulate and enjoyable lecturer. In fact, Jesse was so well-liked and successful that he started his own public relations firm. He traveled around the country spoke on behalf of companies like Ford and the United States Olympic Committee. He stressed the importance of religion, hard work and loyalty. He also sponsored and participated in many youth sports programs in underprivileged neighborhoods.
In 1976, Jesse was awarded the highest honor a civilian of the United States can receive. President Gerald R. Ford awarded him with the Medal of Freedom. Jesse overcame segregation, racism and bigotry to prove to the world that African-Americans belonged in the world of athletics. Several years later, on March 31, 1980, Jesse Owens, 66, died in Tucson, Arizona from complications due to lung cancer. In recognition to his "triumphs for humanity," Owen was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Metal in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush.
Through all the trials, tribulations and successes, Jesse Owens was a devoted and loving family man. In 1935, he married his longtime high school sweetheart, Ruth Solomon. Together they had three daughters, Gloria, Beverly and Marlene. To this day, his widow Ruth and daughter Marlene operate the Jesse Owens Foundation, striving to provide financial assistance and support to deserving young individuals that otherwise would not have the opportunity to pursue their goals. Jesse would certainly be proud of their efforts.
"We used to have a lot of fun. We never had any problems. We always ate. The fact that we didn't have steak? Who had steak?" *
"We all have dreams. In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort."
"Friendships are born on the field of athletic strife and the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust."
"Find the good. It's all around you. Find it, showcase it and you'll start believing it."
"For a time, at least, I was the most famous person in the entire world."
"I always loved running - it was something you could do by yourself and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs."
"If you don't try to win you might as well hold the Olympics in somebody's back yard. The thrill of competing carries with it the thrill of a gold medal. One wants to win to prove himself the best."
"One chance is all you need."
"People come out to see you perform and you've got to give them the best you have within you. The lives of most men are patchwork quilts. Or at best one matching outfit with a closet and a laundry bag full of incongruous accumulations. A lifetime of training for just 10 seconds."
"She (Minnie Ruth Solomon) was unusual because even though I knew her family was as poor as ours, nothing she said or did seemed touched by that. Or by prejudice. Or by anything the world said or did. It was as if she had something inside her that somehow made all that not count. I fell in love with her some the first time we ever talked, and a little bit more every time after that until I thought I couldn't love her more than I did. And when I felt that way, I asked her to marry me . . . and she said she would." *
"I'd noticed him watching me for a year or so, especially when we'd play games where there was running or jumping." *
"Every morning, just like in Alabama, I got up with the sun, ate my breakfast even before my mother and sisters and brothers, and went to school, winter, spring, and fall alike to run and jump and bend my body this way and that for Mr. Charles Riley." *
"He was constantly on me about the job that I was to do and the responsibility that I had upon the campus. And how I must be able to carry myself because people were looking." *
"It all goes so fast, and character makes the difference when it's close." *
"I wanted no part of politics. And I wasn't in Berlin to compete against any one athlete. The purpose of the Olympics, anyway, was to do your best. As I'd learned long ago from Charles Riley, the only victory that counts is the one over yourself." *
"To a sprinter, the hundred-yard dash is over in three seconds, not nine or ten. The first 'second' is when you come out of the blocks. The next is when you look up and take your first few strides to attain gain position. By that time the race is actually about half over. The final 'second' -- the longest slice of time in the world for an athlete -- is that last half of the race, when you really bear down and see what you're made of. It seems to take an eternity, yet is all over before you can think what's happening." *
"I fought, I fought harder . . . but one cell at a time, panic crept into my body, taking me over."*
"I decided I wasn't going to come down. I was going to fly. I was going to stay up in the air forever."*
"It dawned on me with blinding brightness. I realized: I had jumped into another rare kind of stratosphere -- one that only a handful of people in every generation are lucky enough to know." *
"After I came home from the 1936 Olympics with my four medals, it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job." *
"It was bad enough to have toppled from the Olympic heights to make my living competing with animals. But the competition wasn't even fair. No man could beat a race horse, not even for 100 yards."*
"The secret is, first, get a thoroughbred horse because they are the most nervous animals on earth. Then get the biggest gun you can find and make sure the starter fires that big gun right by the nervous thoroughbred's ear."*
A hero in his time, Owens pierced a myth
by Larry Schwartz
For most athletes, Jesse Owens' performance one spring afternoon in 1935 would be the accomplishment of a lifetime. In 45 minutes, he established three world records and tied another.'
But that was merely an appetizer for Owens. In one week in the summer of 1936, on the sacred soil of the Fatherland, the master athlete humiliated the master race.
Owens' story is one of a high-profile sports star making a statement that transcended athletics, spilling over into the world of global politics. Berlin, on the verge of World War II, was bristling with Nazism, red-and-black swastikas flying everywhere. Brown-shirted Storm Troopers goose-stepped while Adolf Hitler postured, harangued, threatened. A montage of evil was played over the chillingly familiar Nazi anthem: "Deutschland Uber Alles."
This was the background for the 1936 Olympics. When Owens finished competing, the African-American son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves had single-handedly crushed Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy.
He gave four virtuoso performances, winning gold medals in the 100- and 200- meter dashes, the long jump and on America's 4x100 relay team. Score it: Owens 4, Hitler 0.
A remarkably even-keeled and magnanimous human being, Owens never rubbed it in. Just as sure as he knew fascism was evil, he also knew his country had a ways to go too in improving life for African-Americans.
"When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus," Owens said. "I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either."
Owens wasn't complaining. That wasn't his style. He believed it was his job "to try to make things better."
By the age of seven he was expected to pick 100 pounds of cotton a day. At nine his family moved to Cleveland. When a teacher asked his name, he answered, "J.C.," which is what he was called. The teacher misunderstood his Southern drawl and the name was Jesse from then on.
Two weeks before the 1935 Big Ten Championships, Owens was involved in some playful hi-jinks with his roommates. But the prank backfired and he slipped on water during his getaway, severely injuring his tailbone.
On May 25 in Ann Arbor, Mich., Owens couldn't even bend over to touch his knees. But as the sophomore settled in for his first race, he said the pain "miraculously disappeared."
3:34 -- His 20.3 seconds bettered the world record in the 220-yard dash.
Some credit Owens with setting five world records, saying he also beat the marks for the shorter 200 meters and 200-meter low hurdles.
In his junior year at Ohio State, Owens competed in 42 events and won them all, including four in the Big Ten Championships, four in the NCAA Championships, two in the AAU Championships and three at the Olympic Trials.
In Germany, the Nazis portrayed African-Americans as inferior and ridiculed the United States for relying on "black auxiliaries." One German official even complained that the Americans were letting "non-humans, like Owens and other Negro athletes," compete.
But the German people felt otherwise. Crowds of 110,000 cheered him in Berlin's glittering Olympic Stadium and his autograph or picture was sought as he walked the streets.
On Aug. 3, the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Owens won his first final, taking the 100 meters in 10.3, edging out Ralph Metcalfe, also an African-American.
The next day, Owens was almost out of the long jump shortly after qualifying began. He fouled on his first two jumps, though he was stunned when officials counted a practice run down the runway and into the pit as an attempt.
With one jump remaining, Luz Long, a tall, blue-eyed, blond German long jumper who was his stiffest competition, introduced himself. He suggested that Owens make a mark several inches before the takeoff board and jump from there to play it safe. Owens took the advice, and qualified.
In the finals that afternoon, Long's fifth jump matched Owens' 25-10. But Owens leaped 26-3_ on his next attempt and won the gold medal with a final jump of 26-5_. The first to congratulate the Olympic record holder was Long, who looked like the model Nazi but wasn't. "It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler," Owens said. "You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.
The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II." Owens, though, would continue to correspond with Long's family.
In the 200-meter dash on August 5, Owens won in an Olympic record of 20.7 seconds, beating out Mack Robinson, the older brother of Jackie Robinson.
That was supposed to be the end of Owens' Olympic participation. But from out of the blue, Owens and Metcalfe replaced Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, the only Jews on the U.S. track team, on the 4x100-meter relay.
The rumor was that the Nazi hierarchy had asked U.S. officials not to humiliate Germany further by using two Jews to add to the gold medals the African-Americans already had won. Glickman blamed U.S. Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage for acquiescing to the Nazis.
On August 9, the 4x100 relay team, with Owens running leadoff, won by 15 yards and its world-record time of 39.8 seconds would last 20 years. Upon Owens' return to New York and a ticker-tape parade, he had to ride the freight elevator to a reception in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria. He was treated as a kind of curiosity.
When endorsements didn't come his way, he made money by, among other activities, running against horses and dogs.
"People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do?" Owens said. "I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals."
Not until the fifties did he achieve financial security, becoming a public speaker for corporations and opening a public-relations firm.
In a 1950 Associated Press poll, he was voted the greatest track and field star for the first half of century, outpolling Jim Thorpe by almost three to one.
In 1976, President Ford presented Owens with the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. can bestow 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, Ariz. Four years later, a street in Berlin was renamed in his honor.