“People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
Whoa, let’s look back …
James Cleveland Owens, the seventh child of Henry and Emma Alexander Owens, was born in Oakville, Alabama, on September 12, 1913 – the son of a sharecropper (a farmer who rents land) and grandson of slaves. He was a sickly child, often too frail to help his father and brothers in the fields.
‘JC,’ as he was called, was nine when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio where he attended public school. When his teacher asked his name to enter in her roll book, she was told “JC,’ but she thought he said ‘Jesse.’ The name stuck and he would be known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.
When Owens was in the fifth grade, the athletic supervisor asked him to join the track team. From a skinny boy he developed into a strong runner, and he started to set track records in junior high school.
“Owens singled out one man, his junior-high track coach, Charles Riley, as his most admired. ‘He had the most influence on my life – everyone loved him and he loved everyone, he said. ‘He made a lot of things possible for a lot of kids.’” (Gentry)
During his high school days, he won all of the major track events, including the Ohio state championship three consecutive years. At the National Interscholastic meet in Chicago, during his senior year, he set a high school world record by running the 100 yard dash in 9.4 seconds, created a new high school world record in the 220 yard dash in 20.7 seconds and a week earlier set a new world record in the broad jump by jumping 24 feet 11 3/4 inches.
Owens’ sensational high school track career resulted in him being recruited by dozens of colleges. Owens chose the Ohio State University, even though OSU could not offer a track scholarship at the time.
He worked a number of jobs to support himself and his young wife, Ruth. He worked as a night elevator operator, a waiter, he pumped gas, worked in the library stacks, and served a stint as a page in the Ohio Statehouse, all of this in between practice and record setting on the field in intercollegiate competition. Jesse entered the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
These were the Games that Hitler planned to show the world that the Aryan people were the dominant race; Jesse Owens proved him wrong and became the first American to win four track and field gold medals at a single Olympics (100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump.) (Olympics) (This was not equaled until Carl Lewis did it in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.)
Owens’ story is one of a high-profile sports star making a statement that transcended athletics, spilling over into the world of global politics. Berlin, on the verge of World War II, was bristling with Nazism, red-and-black swastikas flying everywhere.
Brown-shirted Storm Troopers goose-stepped while Adolf Hitler postured, harangued, threatened. A montage of evil was played over the chillingly familiar Nazi anthem: ‘Deutschland Uber Alles.’ (ESPN)
In Germany, the Nazis portrayed African-Americans as inferior and ridiculed the United States for relying on ‘black auxiliaries.’ One German official even complained that the Americans were letting ‘non-humans, like Owens and other Negro athletes,’ compete.
But the German people felt otherwise. Crowds of 110,000 cheered him in Berlin’s glittering Olympic Stadium and his autograph or picture was sought as he walked the streets.
“‘When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,’ Owens said. ‘I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.’” (ESPN)
Owens said, ‘Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.’ On the other hand, Hitler sent Owens a commemorative inscribed cabinet photograph of himself.
Jesse Owens was never invited to the White House nor were honors bestowed upon him by president Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) or his successor Harry S. Truman during their terms. (Black History)
After the games had finished, the Olympic team and Owens were all invited to compete in Sweden. He decided to capitalize on his success by returning to the United States to take up some of the more lucrative commercial offers. In spite of his fame, on his return from Berlin, Owens struggled for money.
He began to participate in stunt races against dogs, motorcycles and even horses during halftime of soccer matches and between doubleheaders of baseball games.
“People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse,” Owens said, “but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
“(S)hortly after the end of World War II, Abe Saperstein (who formed and owned the Harlem Globetrotters) decided the times were right for a Black league on the West Coast. In a March, 1946 meeting at the High Marine Social Club in Oakland, they organized the West Coast Negro Baseball Association (WCBA.)”
“The league had six franchises: the San Diego Tigers, Los Angeles White Sox, San Francisco Sea Lions, Oakland Larks, Seattle Steelheads and the Portland Roses. Owens contributed his prestige as a league vice president and took ownership of the Portland franchise.” (Oregon Stadium)
A frequent attraction at a number of the Negro baseball games during the 1946 season was a running exhibition by Jesse Owens – sometimes Owens raced the fastest ball players, but more often he was matched against a horse in a staged event before the game. (Plott) The WCBA disbanded after only two months.
In 1946, the Harlem Globetrotter basketball team came to Hawai‘i. Saperstein also brought a Negro League baseball all-star team. (Ogden Standard-Examiner, April 14, 1946) Jesse Owens came too. They performed in Honolulu and Hilo. (Vitti)
“This city (Honolulu) was recently called the one place that represents real democracy by Jesse Owens, world’s fastest track star, who was interviewed in the Honolulu stadium where he is currently giving free instructions to youth of all nationalities.”
“Owens, on tour in the Pacific, has appeared before many civic groups and talked at the University of Hawaii, where he emphasized the importance of developing intellect with athletic prowess.”
“The track star believes that the field of sports offers a good opportunity to better race relations. ‘But all too few shirk the responsibility,’ he stated.”
“Owens, who is a capable speaker, as well as a star athlete, recently won an 80-yard dash with a horse here before a crowd of 8,000.” (Afro-American, October 19, 1946)
Later, ‘the world’s fastest human,’ Jesse Owens, raced the Big Island’s fastest horse at Hilo’s Hoʻolulu Park – the horse won by a neck. (Lang)
In 1955, President Dwight D Eisenhower honored Owens by naming him an ‘Ambassador of Sports.’ In 1976, Jesse was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award bestowed upon a civilian, by Gerald R Ford.
Jesse Owens died from complications due to lung cancer on March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona. Owens was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990 by President George HW Bush. (JesseOwens)
Jesse Owens racing a horse:
“The purpose of the Olympics … was to do your best. As I’d learned long ago from Charles Riley, the only victory that counts is the one over yourself.” (Jesse Owens)