Historical Figures: Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens was one of America's most important sportsmen of the 20th century. He famously ran at the 1936 Berlin olympics, and shook Hitler's hand before upsetting him by winning four of the main events in the track & field.


James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens was born September 12th, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama as the youngest of 11 children. In 1835 he was attending the Ohio State University and won eight individual NCAA chamionships, foud in 1935 and four in 1936.

On May 25, 1935, Owens attented a Big Ten meet in Michigan, where he set three world records and equalled a fourth. He equalled the 100 yard dash record, and broke the records in the long jump, the 220-yard sprint, and the 220-yard low hurdles. It was these record breaking runs that led to him being taken to the Olympics.

Adolf Hitler expected the Berlin Olympics in 1936 to highlight the superiority of the German athletes and of the Aryan race, while also showing the African ethnicity as inferior. Jesse Owens had no plans of following Hitler's script.

Owens' came first in the 100m sprint with a time of 10.3 seconds, the long jump with a jump of 26ft 5in, the 200m sprint with a time of 20.7 seconds and was part of the 4x100 relay sprint with Raplh Metcalf, Frank Wykoff and Foy Draper, setting a world record of 39.8 seconds.

Seeing his supposedly 'superior' Aryan force defeated single handed by a man with African origins was something Hitlet could not comprehend. Hitler shook hands only with German victors throughout the games, and it was reported that Hitler didn't acknowledge Owens' victories and refused to shake his hand. To this Owens replied "Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave." "It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the 'man of the hour' in another country." Though there is no solid evidence of what exactly happened after that race.

Jesse's long jump record was not broken for 25 years until the 1960 Rome Olympics where Ralph Boston broke the record. Before his death in December 1979 Owens was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, made part of the Olympic Order in 1976 and in the same year was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Owens' was a true sporting icon, and the fact that after his successes he was never well off, having to run a dry-cleaning business and work as a gas station attendant, only highlights his tremendous achievements.