Owens' Olympic Feats Live On 70 Years Later

It was 70 years ago this week that the Buckeye Bullet, Jesse Owens, won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In so doing, Owens struck a blow for oppressed African Americans everywhere and against the Nazi regime of German dictator Adolf Hitler. Today -- some 26 years after his death -- we share a piece of Owens' life story and see what made him a special man.

EDITOR'S NOTE -- In commemoration of the anniversary of Jesse Owens' historic showing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, we are republishing an article I wrote 10 years ago on the subject. (Note: Dates and events have been updated to 2006.)

It was 70 years ago this week that James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens shocked the world by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

That feat, coupled with others during his stint as a sprinter, hurdler and long jumper at Ohio State, earned him legendary status among athletes from all sports.

"The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Jesse Owens is the fact that he is no doubt the greatest track athlete of all time," said former OSU track coach Russ Rogers.

Owens' records and accomplishments came in a period when race relations were, at best, uneasy -- it was 30 years before the Civil Rights movement. His four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics were seen as a direct slap in the face of Adolf Hitler's theory of Aryan supremacy.

Aside from being a pioneer for blacks, his versatility within his sport alone made him a legend.

"You don't have that type of athlete anymore," Rogers said. "Here was a guy who performed on cinder tracks, who didn't have the coaching or the equipment athletes today have. He was way, way ahead of his time."

Owens, who died of lung cancer in March 1980 at age 66, grew up in Decatur, Ala. He was one of nine children of a cotton sharecropper. At age 7, Owens contracted pneumonia and nearly died. As a result of the family's health problems, they picked up and moved as far north as they could -- to Cleveland.

"We stopped when we came to Lake Erie," Owens said.

Owens, known as J.C. growing up -- an abbreviation of his first and middle names -- was given the nickname Jesse when a grade school teacher mistook J.C. for Jesse.

As a senior at Cleveland's East Tech High School, Owens tied the world record for the 100-yard dash, running it in 9.4 seconds. He also set a scholastic mark of 24 feet, 9 5/8 inches in the long jump in a meet in Chicago.

Recruiters came from everywhere offering scholarships, but Owens chose Ohio State because of its proximity and coach, Larry Snyder.

Owens quickly became known as "The Buckeye Bullet."

His first season of varsity competition was marked by one of the greatest achievements in track history. On May 25, 1935, at the University of Michigan, Owens -- competing at the Big Ten meet with a sore back injured in a playful wrestling match at his fraternity house -- broke three world records an tied another in a space on 90 minutes. He set new marks in the 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds), 220-yard hurdles (22.6) and the long jump (26 feet, 1/4 inches) and tied the 100-yard dash record (9.4).

"He did all of that in a 90-minute span," Rogers said. "That was unheard of. As great as today's athletes are, they only compete in one or two events."

A year later at the Big Ten meet in Ohio Stadium, Owens fell behind after a bad start in the 220-yard hurdles. He was 18 or 20 yards behind, but rallied to win the race. Snyder maintained "it was the fastest 220 ever run, except that Jess ran it over hurdles."

For all of his collegiate exploits, Owens became a household name after his appearance at the 1936 Olympics. It was the height of Hitler's Nazi Germany. Prior to the Olympics, Hitler made comments about the superiority of his athletes.

"Hitler had directed the brunt of his propaganda against the Americans and me in particular," Owens said years later.

It didn't matter, though, because from Aug 4-7, 1936, Owens captivated the world with his performance. On successive days, he won the 110-meter dash (10.3 seconds, although he set a new world record with a 10.2 in the semifinals), the long jump (26 feet, 5 11/64 inches) and the 200-meter dash (20.7).

Then, to put the icing on the cake, Owens was summoned by coach Lawson Robinson to run on the U.S. team's 400-meter relay team. That team won in a world-record time of 39.8 seconds, netting Owens his fourth gold medal.

Stories vary on Owens' own personal confrontation (or lack of one) with Hitler. Some sources say Hitler left the Olympic stadium due to rain after one of Owens' wins. Another source says the German dictator was asked by Olympic officials to refrain from "congratulating" event champions. Either way, Hitler never acknowledged Owens' victories.

Owens never acknowledged Hitler either: "I wasn't running against Hitler. I was running against the world."

With the world watching, Owens and his black teammates made sure they were on their best behavior.

"What many called the social success of the American Negroes largely is due to their own tact," said a report from Berlin in The New York Times. "They are perfectly well aware there is a race prejudice in the air and they avoid places where they might not be welcome."

Rogers, who came to know Owens through his own international track competitions, said Owens took all of the controversy surrounding his race in stride.

"He had an attitude that it wasn't going to affect him," Rogers said. "His attitude was you became stronger by doing these things. I never saw him where he thought he was better than somebody else.

"He was a very humble person. The only person I can compare him to in that way is Archie Griffin. They seem just like another human being. You would never know they had accomplished so much. Other people let you know who they are," he said.

After his Olympic win, Owens raced in exhibitions across Europe. He returned to the U.S. and was feted with a ticker-tape parade in New York City. Although he was never invited to the White House by President Franklin Roosevelt, Owens was clearly a standardbearer for blacks in the fight for equality.

"I grew up in New York and New Jersey," Rogers said. "When I was 8 or 9 years old, I can remember going to see Jackie Robinson play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was like a god to us and we looked up to him.

"I didn't become acquainted with Jesse Owens until later on, but people like him and Jackie Robinson paved the way for people like Martin Luther King," he said.

Owens' lukewarm response in his home country was hard to accept. Instead of going on to movies or professional sports like other famous Olympians, Owens originally was used as a barnstorming sideshow. He raced horses and toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, running exhibition races at halftime.

"Sure, it bothered me," Owens later said. "But you have to understand there was a vast difference between my time and today's time."

Owens went on to become a successful businessman, running a public relations firm out of Chicago. He also served as a spokesman for the American Olympic movement. He and his wife, Ruth, who he married during his time at OSU, later lived in Phoenix before his death. In 1973, a poll of sportswriters called his Olympic triumph "the most significant sports story of the century."

His life seemingly came full circle in August 1976 when, 40 years after his Olympic triumph, President Gerald Ford presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In recent years, Owens' name has resurfaced as other athletes racked up impressive Olympic medal totals. In 1972, swimmer Mark Spitz won seven golds in Munich. Four years later, comparisons were made with speed skater Eric Heiden's five golds at the Lake Placid, N.Y., games.

It was close to 40 years before the last of Owens' world records had been removed from the record books.

"I was proud to be involved in that history-making process, but I respect the kids coming along today," Owens said in 1975 after his last world mark was bested.

Within Ohio State, Owens' name lives on. The university named its three satellite recreation centers after Owens and constructed a plaza just north of Ohio Stadium to honor him. When the track was removed from Ohio Stadium in 2000, the school built the Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. It is used for soccer games and track meets today.

Owens received an honorary degree from OSU and was later inducted into the school's Athletic Hall of Fame. In 1986, the school hosted it first Jesse Owens Track Classic.

Also, the Jesse Owens Museum has been erected in his original hometown of Oakville, Ala.

In speeches and appearances, Woody Hayes glorified Owens, saying he was one of "Ohio State's Big Four -- Jesse, Arch (Griffin), Jack (Nicklaus), and John (Havlicek)."

Hayes added, "I suppose you'd have to say he was the greatest."

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