Owens, Jesse (1913-1980)

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Owens, Jesse (1913-1980)

J.C. "Jesse" Owens is best remembered for his participation in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, where as part of the United Statesathletics team he won four gold medals in the track and field events. As a black athlete, Owens' success was in direct contradiction with the Nazi doctrine of Aryan supremacy espoused by the Third Reich. Nine of the ten black Americans competing for the United States at the Berlin Olympics won gold medals. Adolf Hitler refused to congratulate Owens on his achievement, and left the stadium before the awards ceremony. Owens' place in history has thus been assured as much for the politics of his sporting achievement as for the achievement itself.

If the implications of what Owens had done at Hitler's Olympics sent a powerful message across pre-World War II Europe, his success had more ambiguous implications for domestic politics in the United States. Back home the clear statement which Owens had made in Europe seemed more confused and contradictory. In the year before his prodigious feats in Berlin, white mobs had lynched nearly two dozen black Americans, and Harlem had witnessed its worst racial rioting since 1919. Whilst Owens received widespread public acclaim on his return from Germany (including a ticker tape parade in New York), at the time his performance was not acknowledged through any official channels by the White House. Despite all this, and despite the conditions endured by many black Americans in the years leading up to the World War II (when the United States Army was to fight against Aryan supremacy in segregated units), Owens found himself hailed as a living symbol of American freedoms and democratic aspiration. In this context the complex political implications of Owens' achievement have been considered by historians alongside the case of Joe Louis, the black American boxer who fought "Hitler's heavyweight" Max Schmeling twice during the 1930s, losing in 1936 but taking his revenge in two minutes in 1938.

Born, like Louis, the son of Alabama sharecroppers, Owens was nine years old when his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. His athletic prowess had already been evident in junior high school where he had established the first in a remarkable series of record breaking performances, extending records in the long jump and broad jump in 1928. Owens moved on to the Ohio State University track team, for whom, on the single afternoon of May 25, 1935, he set six new world records in the 100 yards, 220 yards, 220 meters, 220 yards hurdles, 220 meters hurdles, and the broad jump. Owens retained a high profile in the years after his retirement from competitive athletics and became an influential figure in United States sports administration. In 1950 he was named "top track performer" by a poll of American sportswriters. In 1955, as America's Ambassador of Sports, Owens represented the United States State Department in a "goodwill" tour of India, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, and in 1956 he was President Eisenhower's personal representative at the Australian Olympics. In 1976, President Ford presented Owens with America's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, and in 1990 President Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to Owens' widow, Ruth.

—David Holloway

Further Reading:

Baker, William Joseph. Jesse Owens: An American Life. New York, Free Press, 1986.

Owens, Jesse, and Paul Neimark. Jesse: A Spiritual Autobiography. Plainfield, New Jersey, Logos International, 1978.

Riess, Steven A. Major Problems in American Sport History. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Sanford, William R., and Carl R. Green. Jesse Owens. New York, Maxwell McMillian, 1992.

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Owens, Jesse (1913-1980)

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