James Cleveland Owens – James Versus Goliath


Jesse Owens was an African American athlete who is most famous for his performance at the Berlin Summer Olympics of 1936 where he won four gold medals and for many crushed Hitler’s theory of Aryan supremacy. Here are 10 interesting facts about the life and achievements of one of the greatest track and field athletes who was nicknamed ‘Buckeye Bullet’.

#1 He was born in a poor family and had to work from the age of seven

James Cleveland Owens
James Cleveland Owens

Born on September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, James Cleveland Owens was the youngest of ten children born to Henry Cleveland Owens and Mary Emma Fitzgerald. His family struggled to make ends meet and Owens started working and contributing to the family income from the age of seven. When he was nine years old his family left the segregated South during the Great Migration and settled in Cleveland, Ohio.

#2 He got the name Jesse Owens due to a misunderstanding

At his school in Cleveland his new teacher asked his name to enter in her roll book and Owens replied ‘J.C.’ which was his initials. However due to his strong Southern accent she was unable to make out what he was saying and thought he meant ‘Jesse‘. The name stuck with him for the rest of his life and he went on to become popular as Jesse Owens.

#3 He rose to national prominence by equaling the 100 yard dash record

In 1933 at the National High School Championship in Chicago, Jesse Owens equaled the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard (91 m) dash making him a nationally recognized athlete. He was then a student of East Technical High School in Cleveland. After graduating, Jesse enrolled at the Ohio State University where his career as an athlete continued to flourish.


#4 Jesse Owens was nicknamed ‘Buckeye Bullet’

Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics
Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics

In 1935, his junior year at the Ohio University, Owens rose as one of the most talented athletes in the world. He won four events in the Big Ten Championships, four in the NCAA Championships, two in the AAU Championships and three at the Olympic Trials. He competed in 42 events that year and won them all. He became known as the ‘Buckeye Bullet‘ due to his astonishing speed.

#5 To many he produced “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport”

At the Big Ten track meet in 1935 at Ferry Field in Michigan, Owens set three world records (220 yards sprint, 220 yard low hurdles and long jump) and tied a fourth (100 yard dash) within 45 minutes! This feat is considered by many experts as the most impressive performance in track and field history ever and has been called “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport”.

#6 Owens is most famous for his four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics

The 1936 Summer Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany. Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany were adamant in proving that the Aryan race was superior and the games provided them with an opportunity to do so. Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals in 100m sprint, 200m sprint, long jump, and as part of the 4X100m relay team. By winning more gold medals than any other athlete at the Games, Owens is credited with ‘single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy’.

Jesse Owens on the podium at the 1936 Summer Olympics
Jesse Owens on the podium after winning the long jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics. L-R, Naoto Tajima, Owens, Luz Long


#7 President FDR didn’t congratulate Owens as was customary

There was a controversy at the time that Hitler didn’t shake hands with Owens. However recently there have been claims by a German journalist and a British fighter pilot that this was not the case. To Owens what mattered more was that he couldn’t ride on front of a bus and live where he wanted in his native country. President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t meet Owens and congratulate him, as was typical for champions. Owens famously said, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

Jesse Owens 1990 Stamp
1990 Stamp in honor of Owens


#8 His Berlin feats remained unparalleled for 48 years

Jesse Owens’ performance of winning four gold medals in track and field in an Olympic was not equaled till the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles when Carl Lewis won gold medals in the exact same events. A year prior to the Berlin Olympics, Owens set the world record in the long jump with a leap of 26 ft 8 in. This record stood for 25 years till it was finally broken by Ralph Boston in 1960.

Jesse Owens Long Jump 1936 Berlin Olympics
Jesse Owens jumps over 26ft to win the Long Jump gold medal at the 1936 Olympics


#9 Owens had to race against horses to earn a living

Despite his achievements Owens had a tough life, faced discrimination and had to constantly find ways to make ends meet. Among other things he ran a dry cleaning business and worked as a gas station attendant. He even competed in races against horses. People criticized him saying that it was disgraceful for an Olympic champion to run against horses. To this Jesse replied that one couldn’t eat gold medals. He eventually filed for bankruptcy.

Owens outrunning a horse
Owens beating a horse in a race in 1948


#10 He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976

In 1976, President Gerald Ford awarded Jesse Owens the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. Owens died of lung cancer in Tucson, Arizona, on March 31, 1980. Since 1981, the Jesse Owens Award is awarded annually to the top track and field athlete. It is the highest accolade given out by USA Track and Field (USATF). In 1999, ESPN ranked Owens as the sixth greatest North American athlete of the twentieth century, the highest-ranked in his sport.

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