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Jesse Owens

the first American to win four track and field gold medals in a single Olympics

Jesse Owens, while at Ohio State University

James Cleveland Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama, on September 12, 1913. When he was eight years old his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. On his first day of school his teacher asked his name; he answered "J.C.," which was what his family called him, but she misunderstood it as "Jesse," and he was known as Jesse the rest of his life. He worked a number of odd jobs while growing up in order to help his parents make ends meet.

Jesse's abilities as a track star became evident in 1928, when he set a world junior high record of 6.0 feet in the high jump, and one of 22 feet 11-3/4 inches in the broad jump. As a senior at Cleveland East Technical High School, Owens tied the world record in the 100-yard dash with a time of 9.4 seconds; he tied it again at the Interscholastic Championships in Chicago. At these same championships, his time of 20.7 seconds in the 220-yard dash set a new world high school record. A week before the championships he had set a new world high school record of 24 feet 11-3/4 inches in the broad jump.

Owens' remarkable career continued at Ohio State University. At the 1935 Big Ten Championships he tied the world record time of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash and set three other records -- a distance of 26 feet 8-3/4 inches in the broad jump (6 inches over the previous record); a time of 20.3 seconds in the 220-yard dash; and, a time of 22.6 seconds in the 220-yard low hurdles -- despite suffering from a back injury.

Owens' achievements continued at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where he became the first American to win four track and field gold medals -- in the 100-meter sprint, 200-meter sprint, long jump, and 400-meter relay -- in a single Olympics. He also set two Olympic records and one world record. And, he did all this in front of a crowd that included Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, who had hoped to use the Games to prove to the world that the German race was superior to all others.

Despite having achieved worldwide fame, Owens was never offered the lucrative endorsement deals now commonly available to American athletes. To earn a living, he spent several years running exhibition races in which he raced against horses, automobiles, white professional athletes, etc., and almost always winning. As his fame grew, so too did speaking opportunities, and he came to be recognized as a very gifted motivational speaker. He also devoted much of his time working with and for disadvantaged children, and established the Jesse Owens Foundation to help children achieve their potential. In 1955, he was named by the U.S. State Department as America's Ambassador of Sports, and spent two months touring several Southeast Asian nations and meeting with government and sports officials. In 1956, he was named personal representative of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the Olympic Games in Australia.

Jesse Owens died of lung cancer on March 31, 1980.

Honors and Awards

What follows is but a small representation of the many, many honors and awards bestowed upon Jesse Owens.

1971--the government of the Ivory Coast named the street on which the U.S. Embassy is located "Rue Jesse Owens"
1976--awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by President Gerald R. Ford
1979--honored with the Living Legend Award by President Jimmy Carter
1982--the city of Berlin named one of the streets leading to the Olympic stadium "Jesse Owens Allee"
1990--posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George H.W. Bush

Family Life

In 1935, Owens married his high school sweetheart, Ruth Solomon. The couple had three daughters -- Gloria, Beverly, Marlene.

The Jesse Owens Foundation
Jesse Owens Memorial Park
The Official Site of Jesse Owens

President Dwight D. Eisenhower
President Gerald R. Ford
President Jimmy Carter

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The Robinson Library >> Track and Field Athletics >> Biography

This page was last updated on July 08, 2018.