Jesse Owens is seen as one of the greatest athletes in Olympic history, winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany.
However, what people may not know is that Owens won these medals when racial tension and political upheaval were high.
His road to the Olympics was long and arduous.
Jesse Owens’ Background
Born in Alabama on September 12, 1913, Owens grew up in poverty as the grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper.
As a child, he picked over 100 pounds of cotton a day. His family moved to Cleveland in search of a better life when Jesse was nine.
He ran 10.3 seconds in the 100-yard dash in high school, almost as fast as Usain Bolt, running 9. 58 seconds. Ownes ran on a cinder track without starting blocks to propel him from the start, digging holes as starting blocks in the dirt before the race.
Owens’ spikes were longer compared to the very short modern spikes used today to boost running performance. The cinder tracks he ran created more resistance, which meant the track was slower than running today.
So was Owens as fast as Bolt today, even in the 20th century?
Off to Columbus
In 1933, Owens went to Ohio State. Most athletes of his caliber were given scholarships. However, due to Jesse’s color, he was not.
Owens had to work to pay for university, and at the same time, compete for the OSU track team. He worked as a night elevator operator in the library, waiter, and pumped gas.
Owens was not permitted to stay in the same dorm with the other athletes nor eat with the team. He was barred from staying in the general men’s dorms as well. He had to live in a boarding house with several other African-American students. However, Owens focused on what he could do to be the best by developing his athletic ability and studies.
Coach Larry Snyder at OSU was astonished by Jesse’s athletic ability. He befriended him during a difficult time. Larry’s friendship helped and encouraged Jesse. While the majority of colleges didn’t let black athletes participate, Larry did.
When Jesse would compete at other colleges, he was heckled by the crowds. Despite this, Larry taught Jesse how to block out the crowd’s insults to keep him focused on the race.
Becoming an Olympian
Owens shattered many college records. His incredible athleticism earned him an invite to the 1936 Olympics.
Team USA had considered boycotting the Olympics because of Adolf Hitler. Hitler wanted to ban certain ethnic groups from the Olympic games. He thought the Aryan race was superior and no person of color had any chance of winning.
Owens faced pressure not only to win in Germany but also from the NAACP. They wanted him to boycott the games and send Hitler a message. However, Jesse knew that going and winning would send a bigger message, but getting there would be another challenge.
At the Olympics, Owens won four gold medals, a feat never accomplished before. Three of the four gold medals broke world records.
He formed a friendship with a German long jumper, Luz Long. Jesse said that his friendship with Luz was bigger than winning any gold medal. In a stunning act of kindness, Luz helped Jesse qualify in his long jump.
On Owens’ first attempt, he thought it was a practice jump. However, the officials had already signaled the start of the event. Luz told Jesse to jump about one foot before the marker. And, on his next jump, Owens broke the world record and beat Luz for the Gold in the finals.
The German officials were furious with Luz for helping and befriending the competition.
Owens said, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the gold 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.”
Owens would go on to work with young athletes on behalf of multiple organizations. In a time of racial and political tension, he became a hero for all with his sheer will and perseverance.
In 1976, Owens was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award bestowed upon a civilian. He was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990 by President George Bush.