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Jesse Owens
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Jesse Owens

James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens (September 12, 1913 - March 31, 1980) was an African-American athlete and civic leader. He was most famous for his participation in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany where he won four gold medals and was the star of the games.

He was born in Oakville, Alabama and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He was given the name Jesse by a Cleveland teacher who did not understand his accent when he said he was called J.C.

In a span of 45 minutes on May 25, 1935 at the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he set world records in the long jump, 220-yard dash, and the 220-yard low hurdles and tied the record for the 100-yard dash.

He won four gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympics; on august 3 1936 the 100-meter dash, on august 4 the long jump, on August 5 the 200-meter dash, and after he was added to the 4 x 100-meter relay team, on August 9 he won his fourth gold medal on the 4 x 100-meter relay. His performance was duplicated at the 1984 Summer Olympics, when Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events.

A persistent myth has grown up that Hitler had intended to use the games to promote "Aryan superiority", and was in the stadium for some of Owens' events but had refused to acknowledge him after his remarkable performances. In fact, in Owens' Autobiography, The Jesse Owens Story, Owens himself recounted how Hitler had stood up and waved to him:

"When I passed the Chancellor he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany." - Jesse Owens, The Jesse Owens Story, 1970.

In what was to become an act of extreme irony, the American president of the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, then involved in an election and concerned about the reaction in the USA's southern states, refused to see Owens at the White House: Owens was later to remark that it was Roosevelt, not Hitler, who snubbed him.

After the games, he had difficulty making a living, however, and became a sports promoter, essentially promoting himself. He would give local sprinters ten or twenty yards start and still beat them in the 100 yd dash. He also challenged and defeated racehorses, although he revealed later that the trick was to race a high-strung thoroughbred horse that would be frightened by the starter's pistol and give him a good jump.

His promotion work eventually turned into a career in public relations, including a long stint as a popular jazz disc jockey in Chicago.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 by Gerald Ford and the Congressional Gold Medal by George H. W. Bush posthumously on March 28, 1990. In 1984, a street in Berlin was renamed in his honor. All his life he attributed his career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his junior-high track coach, who had picked him off the playground and put him on the track team. (See Harrison Dillard, a Cleveland athlete inspired by Owens.)

Owens, a pack-a-day smoker for 35 years, died of lung cancer at age 66 in Tucson, Arizona. He is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery, in Chicago, Illinois.

External Links

Olympic Champions in Men's 100 m
Tom Burke | Frank Jarvis | Archie Hahn | Reggie Walker | Ralph Craig | Charlie Paddock | Harold Abrahams | Percy Williams | Eddie Tolan | Jesse Owens | Harrison Dillard | Lindy Remigino | Bobby Joe Morrow | Armin Hary | Bob Hayes | Jim Hines | Valeri Borzov | Hasely Crawford | Allan Wells | Carl Lewis | Linford Christie | Donovan Bailey | Maurice Greene

Olympic Champions in Men's 200 m
John Tewksbury | Archie Hahn | Bobby Kerr | Ralph Craig | Allen Woodring | Jackson Scholz | Percy Williams | Eddie Tolan | Jesse Owens | Mel Patton | Andy Stanfield | Bobby Joe Morrow | Livio Berruti | Henry Carr | Tommie Smith | Valeri Borzov | Don Quarrie | Pietro Mennea | Carl Lewis | Joe DeLoach | Mike Marsh | Michael Johnson | Konstantinos Kenteris