Jesse Owens was a track and field athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Owens, a standout at The Ohio State University, won eight individual NCAA championships with the Buckeyes. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter awarded Owens with the Medal of Freedom and Living Legend Award for his achievement in the Berlin Olympics. Owens died on Mar. 31, 1980 from complications due to lung cancer.
James Cleveland Owens was born on Sept. 12, 1913 in Oakville, Ala. to Henry and Emma Owens. Nicknamed "J.C.," Owens was the seventh out of 11 children. Owens had health issue as a young child, suffering from chronic bronchial congestion and pneumonia. Owens' family moved to Cleveland when he was nine and started going by "Jessie" after his teacher misunderstood his Southern drawl.
Owens started running track and field at Fairmount junior high school. At East Technical High School, Owens set or tied national high school records in the 100 and 220-yard dashes and the long jump at the 1933 National Interscholastic Championships in Chicago.
The Ohio State University
Jesse Owens attended The Ohio State University in 1934. Owens wasn't offered a track scholarship so he worked in order to pay for school and lived off campus with other African-American athletes. As a member of the Buckeyes track team, Owens earned the nickname "Buckeye Bullet." Between 1935-1936, Owens won eight individual NCAA championships at Ohio State and all 42 events he competed in during his junior season.
Two weeks before competing in the Big Ten Championships, Owens injured his tailbone after he was involved in a prank with his roommates. On the day of the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich., Owens was in so much pain that he couldn't bend over to touch his knees. But over a span of 45 minutes, Owens' pain went away, setting world records in the long jump (26-8 ¼), 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds), and in the 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds). He also tied the record in the 100-yard dash, winning the race in 9.4 seconds.
Jesse Owens qualified for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He faced a lot of adversity from German leader Adolf Hitler, but was popular with the German fans who came to see him at Olympic Stadium.
On Aug. 3, 1936, Owens beat out Ralph Metcalfe, a fellow African-American, for the gold medal in the 100 meters with a time of 10.3 seconds. The following day in the long jump, Owens almost didn't qualify for the finals. After fouling his first two jumps and getting credited for a practice run, Owens listened to the advice from Luz Long, his competition in the event. Long suggested that Owens make a mark several inches before the takeoff board to prevent him from fouling a third time. Owens took his advice and qualified for the finals that afternoon.
In the finals, Long and Owens were tied with jumps of 25 feet, 10 inches after their fifth attempts. But with jumps of 26-3¾ and 26-5½, Owens won the gold medal.
On Aug. 5, 1936, Owens defeated Mack Robinson, the older brother of Jackie Robinson, in the 200 meters, winning the gold medal with an Olympic-record time of 20.7 seconds.
Owens was a late addition to the 4X100 meter relay team along with Metcalfe after Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller pulled out. He was the lead runner in the race, as the United States won by 15 yards and set a world-record time of 39.8 seconds for his fourth gold medal of the Olympics.
Owens made history by becoming the first American track and field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad. However, Owens returned home to face segregation and racism. At a reception in his honor, Owens was forced to ride the freight elevator. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman failed to acknowledge Owens' accomplishments. It wasn't until 1955 that President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the State Department acknowledged Owens by naming him an "Ambassador of Sports."
Jesse Owens wasn't able to land the lucrative endorsement deals following his success in the Olympics. He held a variety of jobs in order to support his family, including serving as a playground director in Cleveland. After Owens moved to Chicago, he served as a board member and director of the Chicago Boys Club. One of the odder jobs Owens had was competing against animals, including horses and dogs.
With money becoming tighter, Owens ran a dry-cleaning business and worked at a gas station before filing for bankruptcy in 1966.
Later in life, Owens traveled the world as an inspirational speaker and was a public relations consultant for Ford and the United States Olympic Committee.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford awarded Jesse Owens with the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. Owens returned to the White House in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter presented him with the Living Legend Award. Owens was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990 by George H.W. Bush.
Following his death in 1980, USA Track and Field created the Jesse Owens Award in 1981 for the top track and field athlete in the country. The United States Postal Service has issued two stamps in Owens' honor, in 1990 and 1998. The Ohio State University opened Jessie Owens Memorial Stadium in 2001.
Jesse Owens married Ruth Solomon, his high school sweetheart, in 1935. The couple had three daughters, Gloria, Marlene and Beverly. Owens passed away on Mar. 31, 1980, from complications due to lung cancer. Ruth passed away in 2001.
Birth date: Sept. 12, 1913 Birthplace: Oakville, Alabama College: Ohio State Date of death: March 31, 1980 Place of death: Tucson, Arizona Olympic Medals: 4 Gold Medals: 4
Inducted into National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974 (Inaugural Class)
JESSE OWENS OLYMPIC RESULTS
SCHAAP: OWENS' FIGHT
For more on the story of Jesse Owens and the efforts to keep America out of the 1936 Olympics, check out this excerpt from Jeremy Schaap's book "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics."
CELEBRATING BLACK HISTORY
ESPN.com celebrates Black History Month with a series of stories that reflect on the contributions to the world of sports by African-Americans. Black History Month »