Ohio State and Olympic legend Jesse Owens found good when evil was all around him
The thunder boomed from the pistol barrel, sending Jesse Owens, “The Buckeye Bullet,” off to the races. Owens, a young track star from Oakville, Alabama, dashed to the lead in front of a Berlin crowd at the 1936 Summer Olympics. As his chest tore through the finish line, Owens accomplished exactly what he set out to do – win.
Among the observers that day was a ruthless dictator named Adolf Hitler, who could only watch as the African American Owens annihilated his hollow theory of Aryan supremacy. Hitler refused to acknowledge Owens, choosing instead to leave early to avoid congratulating any athlete on their success.
Owens had no desire to shake hands with Hitler anyway. Though he would have behaved formally if the scene had played out, he did not go to Germany to meet with anyone or do anything but run. He also went to bring honor to his name and his country, and he did so.
The snub by the German dictator was not the only one Owens received after winning four gold medals, however. The one that hurt him most deeply was by the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Amazingly, when Owens arrived home after winning four Olympic gold medals, Roosevelt ignored him on as grand a scale as Hitler. Invitations to the White House for a congratulatory ceremony were only sent to the white Olympic champions, leaving Owens and others at home. This infuriated him far more than his lack of interaction with Hitler, and led him to declare, “Hitler didn’t snub me. It was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send a telegram.”
Unfortunately, this was not the only racism Owens experienced in the wake of his Olympic success. After the games concluded, the entire Olympic team was invited to compete in Sweden. Owens politely declined to return home and cash in on the endorsement deals he expected would continue to fund his track-and-field career. U.S. Olympic officials became irate upon hearing of Owens’ decision and withdrew his amateur status, ending his career instantaneously.
Only a year earlier, in 1935, Owens had accomplished the feat known as “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport.” Competing for The Ohio State University at the Big Ten Track and Field Championship in Ann Arbor, Mich., Owens broke three separate world records and tied a fourth in less than an hour. He set new marks in the 220-yard dash with a time of 20.3 seconds, the 220-yard low hurdles with a time of 22.6 seconds and in the long jump with a distance of 26 feet, 8 1/4 inches. The latter broke the previous record by more than a foot. He also tied a world record by completing the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds.
Yet after the revocation of his amateur status, Owens was left with no choice but to work as a gas station attendant. For extra money, he won bets by racing against horses.
In Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics by Jeremy Schaap, Owens describes this escape in great detail. “I always loved running. I wasn’t very good at it, but I loved it because it was something you could do all by yourself, all under your own power. You could go in any direction fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.”
But at that point in Owens’ adult life, even that escape had been stripped from him.
After sorting through multiple jobs that never blossomed into a long-term career, Owens filed for bankruptcy in 1966. Thirty hard-hitting years had passed since four gold medals had been placed around his neck. At this point in his life, the only weight was that of a hanging head and a wearied soul.
That same year, the United States government tried to make amends with the proud champion it had once treated so appallingly. Owens was appointed as a Good Will ambassador, allowing him to travel the world until his retirement, where he spent his time raising racehorses.
On March 31, 1980, laying in a hospital bed in Tucson, Arizona, surrounded by his family, a 66-year-old Owens passed away. The weary man was finally at rest.
After his death, President Jimmy Carter paid tribute to Owens stating, “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty, and racial bigotry.”
A quote by Owens himself describes how, through it all, he chose to view his own life in a different manner. “Find the good. It’s all around you. Find it, showcase it and you’ll start believing it.” H&A