On this day in 1980, Jesse Owens passes away. Owens is perhaps best known for his stunning performance at the 1936 Olympics, which were played in Nazi Germany just before World War II.
“Mr. Owens, who was black, scored a triumph that would come to be regarded as not only athletic but also political,” his obituary noted. “Adolf Hitler had intended the Berlin Games to be a showcase for the Nazi doctrine of Aryan supremacy.”
Instead, Hitler watched as Owens scored victory after victory.
“Nothing Jesse Owens did at the Olympic stadium diminished the horrors to come,” a biographer concludes. “He saved no lives. . . . [but] while much of the rest of the world kowtowed to the Nazis, Owens stood up to them at their own Olympics, refuting their venomous theories with his awesome deeds.”
Who would have known that the son of Alabama sharecroppers would turn out to be such a phenomenon?
Owens was born James Cleveland “J.C.” Owens. His family was poor—and that poverty led to at least one terrifying incident when J.C. was only 5 years old. A probable tumor had appeared on the little boy’s chest. J.C.’s family couldn’t afford a doctor, so his mom sterilized a knife and cut the tumor out herself. Poor little J.C. bit on a leather strap, trying not to cry during the makeshift operation.
He bled for days, but his family kept praying—and he survived. Afterwards, his life resumed some degree of normalcy. He helped in the cotton fields, attended school—and he ran.
“I loved [running],” he would say, “because it was something you could do all by yourself . . . . fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.”
J.C.’s life in Alabama wouldn’t last long. When he was 9 years old, the whole family moved to Ohio, which (oddly) led to a name change, too. A teacher misheard “J.C.” as “Jesse”! The name change stuck.
A new state, a new name—and many new opportunities. Perhaps most importantly, Jesse met Charles Riley and Larry Snyder, two track coaches who recognized his raw talent and worked to nurture it. Riley coached Jesse early on, even arranging early morning practices when after-school sessions were incompatible with Jesse’s jobs. Snyder took over at Ohio State: He was a mentor, coach, and friend who would eventually go all the way to the Olympics with his young protégé.
Under Snyder’s tutelage, Owen shocked the athletic world at the Big Ten Championships in May 1935: He broke three world records and tied another, all within the space of a single hour. Even more impressively, he did it with an injured back! “That has to be the greatest hour in the history of track and field,” one professor wrote for Forbes, “and maybe even one of the greatest hours in the history of sports.”
“How does it feel to be the world’s fastest human?” a reporter asked Owens afterwards. “I think the praise is a little too high,” Owens replied.
Mostly, Owens thought he could have run faster.
Owens became a media sensation. That was great—then it was terrible. Owens was separated from his fiancé while traveling with his team. The media began speculating about romantic problems. Owens was tired, distracted, and his performances began to suffer. “I can’t help feeling that Owens is pretty much burned out,” one former Olympic champion would say at the time.
So how did Owens recover and go on to become a thorn in Hitler’s side? Naturally, the story continues tomorrow.
American Legends: The Life of Jesse Owens (Charles River Editors; 2015)
Jacqueline Edmondson, Jesse Owens: A Biography (2007)
Jeremy Schaap, Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics (2008)