SportsCentury: Jesse Owens

An American hero
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"This was the guy that tweaked Hitler's mustache. This is the guy who showed the master race they were the minor race. Jesse Owens was an authentic American hero from then on," says Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Jim Murray on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, Dec. 17, 10 p.m. ET).

Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, was voted No. 6 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.

Signature event
May 25, 1935 -- Two weeks ago, Owens was involved in some playful hi-jinks with his roommates. But the prank backfired and the Ohio State sophomore slipped on water during his getaway, severely injuring his tailbone.

For today's Big Ten Championships (then known as the Western Championships) in Ann Arbor, Mich., Owens couldn't even bend over to touch his knees. But as he settled in for his first race, the pain "miraculously disappeared," he said. Competing in four events in 45 minutes, Owens put on the most phenomenal track and field show of all-time, setting three world records and tying a fourth.

At 3:15 p.m., Owens ran the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds to tie the world mark. Ten minutes later, making only one attempt in the long jump, he leaped 26-8¼ for a world record that would last 25 years.

Next came the 220-yard race and Owens won in a world-record time of 20.3 seconds. At 4 p.m., the "Buckeye Bullet" capped his scintillating show by becoming the first to break 23 seconds in the 220-yard low hurdles, finishing in a blistering 22.6.

Some credit Owens with setting five world records, saying he also beat the marks for the shorter 200 meters and 200-meter low hurdles.

Odds 'n ends

  • Jesse became a father in August 1932, after his junior year in high school. He later married the girl's mother, Ruth Solomon, and they had two more daughters.

  • When Owens entered Ohio State in the fall of 1933, he was barred from living on campus because of his race. He stayed in a boarding house with other African-American students about a quarter-mile from the campus.

  • He worked as an elevator operator and later as a page in the state legislature in Columbus.

  • Owens never graduated from Ohio State. The only degree he obtained from the university was an honorary Doctorate of Athletic Arts degree in 1972.

  • Owens on Hitler's entering the Olympic stadium in Berlin in 1936: "I remember seeing Hitler coming in with his entourage and the storm troopers standing shoulder to shoulder like an iron fence. Then came the roar of 'Heil, Hitler!' from 100,000 throats. And all those arms outstretched. It was eerie and frightening."

  • A week after Owens won his fourth gold medal at the Games, the Amateur Athletic Union suspended him for refusing to run in a meet in Sweden, though Owens had never agreed to participate.

  • Although he received ticker-tape parades in New York City and Cleveland after his Berlin heroics, President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't invite him to the White House - or even send him a letter of congratulations.

  • Despite his feats in 1935 and 1936, Owens never was voted the Sullivan Award as the best U.S. amateur athlete. Golfer Lawson Little won it the first year and Olympic decathlon champion Glenn Morris the next.

  • Owens was voted the Athlete of the Year (pro or amateur) in 1936 by the Associated Press.

  • Glory, but not gold, came Owens' way after his magnificent Berlin performance. Over the next few years Owens led a 12-piece band of African-American musicians, managed a touring all-black basketball team, organized a touring softball team, worked as a playground director in Cleveland and continued to run in suspect exhibitions. He lent his name to a chain of cleaning stores, which flopped and left Owens $114,000 in debt. In 1939, he filed for bankruptcy.

  • In 1965, Owens was convicted of failing to pay income tax for four years. The judge noted Owens' sterling character and instead of a prison term and stiff fine, he ordered Owens to pay a mere $3,000 ($750 for each year).

  • Owens sided with the U.S. Olympic Committee against militant young African-American athletes at the 1968 Games. In 1970, he wrote "Blackthink," which criticized racial militancy. He said blacks needed to "fight harder to make equality work." While whites applauded his stance, many African-Americans viewed him as an Uncle Tom.

  • However, by 1972 he had switched positions and wrote another book, "I Have Changed," retracting his earlier criticisms. With this book, he made peace with the black community as he defended the rights of African-Americans to protest racism and injustice. In 1974, he was inducted as a charter member of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.

  • In 1978, Owens received the Roy Wilkens Award from the NAACP.

  • Since 1981, the International Amateur Athletic Association has annually presented the Jesse Owens International Trophy to the top amateur athlete in the world.