Jesse Owens was the son of a 1)sharecropper and the grandson of a slave. But he had the world’s attention at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, when he left Hitler’s Aryan 2)supremacy theories in the dust and collected four individual gold medals.
Owens was still at high school when he equaled the world record for the hundred 3)yard dash. At Ohio State University he became known as the “4)Buckeye Bullet” and won a record eight championships. However, as an African-American student, he was forced to live off-campus and America’s racial laws also forbade him to eat out with white teammates when the athletics team traveled around the United States. But the determined athlete could not be held back, and on May 25, 1935, he 5)astounded America by equaling the world record for the hundred yard dash and setting world records in the long jump, the 220 yard dash and the 220 yard low 6)hurdles. This set him up as a force to be 7)reckoned with at the 1936 Olympics.
Adolf Hitler planned to use the Berlin Olympics to 8)showcase the superiority of Germany’s Aryan people, but Owens’ extraordinary achievements 9)put paid to that, and by the end of the Games the Germans themselves were cheering him on.
After the Games, Owens returned to the States to follow up on some potential endorsement deals rather than competing in Sweden with the rest of the team. Sporting authorities 10)revoked his 11)amateur status ending his athletics career. But Owens was unrepentant, as he did not receive any sporting scholarships and needed to support his young family. Unfortunately, prejudice made it impossible for a black athlete to make a living from endorsements, so Owens turned to professional running, taking part in 12)stunts such as racing a horse in Cuba. He won by 20 yards. Owens later said, “People say that it was 13)degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
The great 14)sprinter struggled to get by when his running days were over, going into the dry cleaning business and even working as a gas station attendant. But in the late 1960’s he started to carve a name for himself as a good will ambassador, spreading the message that with determination anyone could achieve greatness. He participated in events such as the opening of the American Embassy in the 15)Ivory Coast in 1971, where the street was renamed in his honour. The mayor of 16)Abidjan said calling the street Rue Jesse Owens celebrated the athlete’s achievements and 17)commemorated his contribution to disproving Nazi racialist theory.
In 1976, US President Gerald Ford awarded him a Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour. Four years later, following Owen’s death, President Jimmy Carter paid tribute. “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against 18)tyranny, poverty and racial 19)bigotry,” Carter said. “His work with young athletes as an unofficial ambassador overseas and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans.”