“Life is the real Olympics.” Jesse Owens born September 12, 1913

Wyatt and Jonah relax as the sprinters pass.

Jesse Owens, one of the more remarkable Americans to grace the world stage was born in Alabama in 1913 to Henry and Emma Owens, sharecroppers who were the children of slaves. Their existence was marginal, often without enough food, and Owens (the seventh of 11 children) was sickly. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when Owens was seven, but life was not much improved. The young boy worked in his spare time to contribute to the family income, while attending public school.

Olympic Dreams

By age 12, Owens showed extraordinary promise as a sprinter. At Cleveland East Technical High School, he distinguished himself in competition, while still working after-school jobs. He tied the world record in the 100-yard dash, and set new national records in the 200-yard dash and broad-jump. He was aggressively courted by a number of colleges and universities, but no scholarships were available.

Olympic Friends

Owens felt unable to leave home and forfeit his financial contribution to the household. When Ohio State University arranged work for his father, Owens accepted an offer to attend (but still worked three jobs in his free time). There he achieved national recognition while experiencing the insult of racism. He and the other African Americans were forced to live off-campus, and when traveling, they were confined to “blacks-only” restaurants and hotels.

Olympic Togetherness

At the Big Ten track and field meet in Ann Arbor in 1935, Owens’ coach was unsure that he could compete. Owens had injured his back one week prior, and had not been able to train. He prevailed upon the coach to let him run, and achieved the unprecedented feat of setting three world records, and tying a fourth, in less than one hour. He smashed the broad-jump record by almost six inches, with a leap of 26 feet, 8-1/4 inches. He set new world records with 20.3 seconds in the 220-yard dash, and in the 220-yard low hurdles with 22.6 seconds. And he once again tied the 100-yard dash record of 9.4 seconds.

Mark, Set, Go.

The 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, Nazi Germany. Adolph Hitler planned to use the competition to prove Aryan (white) racial supremacy. Owens was scheduled to compete in three events, and became a substitute for a relay runner in a fourth. After initially faltering with two fouls in the broad-jump, he received encouragement and advice from Hitler’s favorite Lutz Long. Owens proceeded to win the Gold Medal. He also won Gold Medals in the other three events, the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, and 400-meter relay team. Owens was the first American to win four Gold Medals in the history of Olympic Track and Field competition, and by the end of the event the mostly German audience was cheering and chanting his name. Hitler left the stadium before Owens could complete his triumph.

While a ticker-tape parade greeted Owens in New York City on his return, there were no professional endorsement opportunities available (possibly due to racial discrimination). As he said in an interview: “I came back to my native country and I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus.” A misunderstanding with a track and field association compromised his ability to compete.

As Owens himself once said: “Life is the real Olympics.”

Sources: Jesse Owens Foundation; Black History Now; New York Times

7 thoughts on ““Life is the real Olympics.” Jesse Owens born September 12, 1913

  1. My coach has ridden in two Olympics 2004 in Athens and 2016 in Rio. I have talked to her about that experience and it is amazing. I went to the London 2012 Olympics. That was an experience of a lifetime. the atmosphere and exhilaration pervaded the entire city. It was amazing .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would have loved to be in London for the Olympics. It was a really wonderful event to watch on tv….even better in person. I seems to recall the horse events were spectacular!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was the British Dressage Team won Gold and the British rider Charlotte Dujardin won the individual gold. Britain has never won Team Gold before. The whole city was electric and everything was so well organized. It was a fabulous experience to be there .

        Liked by 1 person

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