The Legendary Jesse Owens

Feb. 1, 2009

The following is an excerpt from the 1967 Prentice-Hall, Inc. publication THE BIG TEN, written by former Big Ten Commissioner Kenneth L. (Tug) Wilson and Jerry Brondfield. 

The simple fact of the matter is that Jesse Owens was the most famous track and field athlete of all time, and that goes back as far as the first Greek in the first competitive foot-race ever held. You could look it up.

Think of the great names of today and the near past - Paavo Nurmi, Charley Paddock, Bob Hayes, Dallas Long, Valerie Brumel, Peter Snell. All are great names, but a generation from now, most likely, they will be merely names in a record book. They will not have had Jesse Owens' charisma. Charisma ... The word has something to do with a magical image, and let it go at that. In this case it is an image that translates into "legend," and that is what the lithe, graceful Ohio Stater became.

In 1950 when the Associated Press conducted a poll to determine the greatest track and field athlete of the first half of the Twentieth Century, the result wasn't even close - Owens by plenty.

It all started when a Cleveland, Ohio, junior high school physical education teacher looked at the frail 8th grader who had moved up from the South a couple of years previously. The boy obviously needed building up and the teacher suggested he come out for track. The boy's name was really James Cleveland Owens but when he went to school he told his teacher his name was J.C. Owens, using the initial sonly. The teacher misunderstood his drawl and the name was instantly Jesse.

So the physical education teacher took Jesse out on the city street which the junior high school used as a running track and lined up a few boys for a 100-yard dash. The untrained Jesse beat them all by 15 yards. The teacher looked at his stop-watch and later that day took it to a jeweler to repair. Obviously it was off because the youngster had run the 100 yards in floppy rubber sneakers in near world record time. The jeweler assured the teacher there was absolutely nothing wrong with the watch.

A couple of years later, in high school, Jesse Owens was running the century in 9.5 and broad-jumping 25 feet. He went to Ohio State where Coach Larry Snyder worked on his start and put him on a development program to make fullest use of his versatility.

Jesse Owens & the Finest Hour in Big Ten Championships

Western Conference (Big Ten) Outdoor Track & Field Championships

Ferry Field
Ann Arbor, Mich.

May 25, 1935

3:15 p.m.
Ties World Record in winning the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds.

3:25 p.m.
Sets World Record in winning the broad jump at 26 feet 8 1/4 inches.

3:34 p.m.
Sets World Record in winning the 220-yard dash in 20.3 seconds.

4:00 p.m.
Sets World Record in winning the 220-yard low hurdles in 22.6 seconds.

It was this versatility which on May 25, 1935 electrified the sports world as it hadn't been in decades. The setting: the Western Conference Outdoor Track and Field meet at Ann Arbor, Mich., and the expectation that the Ohio State sophomore sensation would give them something to remember had brought out the largest crowd yet to see a Big Ten meet - more than 10,000 people, packed into Michigan's ancient Ferry Field wooden stands.

For three weeks Jesse had had an aching back which hadn't responded too well to treatment. Therefore, it must have been pure adrenalin which, in the space of 45 minutes, took his mind off his ache and enabled him to put on the greatest one-man, one-day performance the sport had ever known. Jesse broke three world records and tied a fourth.

The time-table went like this:

At 3:15 he flashed down the track to win the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds, tying the world mark.

At 3:25 Jesse removed his sweat suit, bent over at the top of the broad jump runway and hurtled forward toward the take-off board. In his first and what was to be his only jump of the day he rocketed out 26 feet 8 ¼ inches, breaking the world record by more than half a foot.

At 3:34, just nine minutes later, Owens again slipped out of his sweats, this time for the 220-yard dash. He took his mark, went to the set position, was off with the gun and streaked home almost 15 yards ahead of the second man in 20.3 seconds, slashing three-tenths of a second from the world mark.

At exactly 4:00 p.m., 16 minutes later, he again took off his sweats and eyed the long row of barriers placed in position for the 220-yard low hurdles. Again the gun, and again there was Owens ripping away from the field, flying over the timbers to the tape. The time: 22.6 seconds, four-tenths of a second shaved from the world record.

The 5-10, 165-pound paragon of poetry in motion was to add verse upon verse to his accomplishments. A few weeks after the Conference meet, he scored an unprecedented sweep of the same four events in the National Collegiates. He swept the same four at the Conference meet the following May, 1936. Then he repeated his NCAA triumphs in June, 1936. Eight Big Ten outdoor crowns; eight NCAA crowns. The figures stand alone in track history. He never got the chance to add the senior year championships which surely would have made his figures as permanent as those at Mt. Rushmore. The 1936 Olympic Games altered his whole life.

From the moment the American contingent arrived in Berlin the so-called Buckeye Bullet was the man most marked for distinction. The 110,000 who jammed Adolf Hitler's new stadium, and fans at home throughout the world, wondered whether Owens would be vulnerable to the pressure of international competition and show a crack in his invincibility.

At no Olympiad, past or future, would an athlete be subjected to such searching scrutiny. Correspondents converged in platoons around Owens in the Olympic Village where the athletes were quartered, prying into his minute-by-minute activities in Berlin. Some European papers and magazines even sent female writers in an attempt to whip up a special perspective. Finally, the American coaching staff had to blow the whistle on the intensive coverage. There was just too much danger that Jesse would be badgered into a state of nerves. They needn't have bothered. Larry Snyder, Owen's coach and assistant coach of the Olympic team, could have pointed to Jesse's amazing ability to hang loose. Relaxation, in fact, was the key to his performing style. He didn't know what it was to be tense either before or during competition and his flawless style reflected it.

Jesse Owens made a one-man show of the 1936 Olympics. He was entered in the 100- and 200-meter dashes; the broad jump; and scheduled for a leg of the 400-meter relay.

First he streaked to victory in the 100 meters in 10.3 but was denied a new Olympic record because of a slight breeze. Then came the broad jump and a display of sportsmanship rarely if ever seen in an Olympic setting. In the preliminaries Owens was ahead of Lutz Long, Germany's great leaper, by a few inches with one more prelim to go. Long had strained a leg muscle and now there was the sight of Jesse Owens down on the grass reassuring the blond Nazi entry, and rubbing his leg. Long got up, took his final jump which was a few inches under 26 feet - but enough to take the Gold medal unless his non-Aryan rival could really get out there on his last attempt.

Owens poised at the end of the runway, and raised up and took off down the strip, gathered momentum, hit the take-off board solidly and soared up and out into the sand as the crowd roared, knowing it was a tremendous effort. The measurement confirmed it: a new Olympic mark of 26 feet 5 and 5/16 inches, the first time anyone had ever gone over 26 feet in Olympic history.

Came the 200-meter dash, on a raw, damp day, the worst of the Olympic festival. The finalists waited until the last second before removing their sweat clothes. A fine rain started to fall as the runners went to their set position. Owens exploded off his mark at the gun, swept around the turn two yards in front, then went into his rhythmic over-glide to pull away and win by five yards in 20.7, a new Olympic mark - the first time anyone had bettered 21 seconds for 200-meters around a curve.

Jesse Owens was a one-man show at the 1936 Olympics, winning four Gold Medals.

In his huge, private box Adolf Hitler glowered and bit at his mustached upper lip. It was the third time Der Feuhrer had to rise to his feet to acknowledge the ceremonious draping of a gold medal around the neck of the American Negro on the victor's stand.

There would be a fourth Gold Medal for Jesse. He ran the lead-off leg for the American team in the 400-meter sprint relay. He rocketed off to give the Yankee quartet such a tremendous lead there was no chance of overtaking them as they sped to a new Olympic record of 40.0.

Der Feuhrer didn't see Jesse Owens receive his fourth Gold Medal. He couldn't take it. Tight-faced, his fists clenched at his side, he got up from his seat just before the award ceremonies began and sulked from the stadium.

It had been a busy three days for Jesse Owens. In winning his four Gold Medals he had to run the 100-meters four times, including preliminary heats; the 200-meters four times; the 400-meter relay twice, and had to make two broad-jump appearances with several trials, each. In these 12 performances he bettered or equaled nine Olympic and four world records. There had been no such hero in the annals of international sport. Even before Jesse returned home he announced he would turn professional to take advantage of some of the hundreds of commercial offers he had been bombarded with before he left Berlin.

He came home to a Broadway ticker-tape welcome, passed up his senior season at Ohio State and embarked on a world-wide professional tour which included running against horses and dogs. Later he went into business and youth activities work in Chicago.

Then, 15 years later, in August, 1951, Jesse once again appeared on the running track of the giant stadium in Berlin, which was unharmed by bombing in World War Two. This time he was there at the invitation of the U.S. High commission to Germany. The war was over but the Cold War with Russia was eroding the spirit of the vanquished German people who had been sustained by the Berlin Airlift when the Reds cut off food and fuel from the West.

Jesse Owens, in his Olympic track suit, addressed 75,000 Germans in the stadium, asking them to "...Stand fast with us in the fight for freedom and democracy under the protection of Almighty God."

Then Owens jogged around the same track that had been his glory path 15 years before. The entire crowd stood in thunderous salute as he jogged and waved. He was still the winner they'd never forgotten.