Athletic Legends – Part VII,
The first winner of 4 gold medals in Olympic athletic,
‘The Buckeye Bullet’ Jesse Owens
‘The Buckeye Bullet’ Jesse Owens
James Cleveland (Jesse) Owens was born the seventh of eleven children of a tenant farmer Owens in Oakville, Alabama on 12 September 1913. Especially black people were suffered of poverty in northern area of America in the early 20th century. Hence, these pauper peoples moved to other area known as Great Migration for 20 years from 1910 to 1930.
Family of J.C. (the abbreviation of his name in childhood) also left his hometown Alabama and moved to Cleveland, Ohio in northeastern America. In the new school teacher asked him for his name to enroll, he answered J.C. with strong American Southern accent by mistake the teacher enlisted his name as Jesse which became the name of his lifetime.
Cleveland also had to do chores after school like most other African-American children at that time. In school, coach named Charles Lilly discovered Cleveland’s qualities first as an athletic. Coach encouraged him to be an athletic at that time. J.C had great interest in running but he had to do housework after school. Therefore, coach proposed if J.C could join the training before the school, not after. That was the starting point of his life as a sprinter.
He became national figure as an athlete from high school. He set the world record 9.4 seconds in 100 yards and jumped 7.56 m at Chicago National High School Championships in 1933.
He continued being as a sprinter after entering at The Ohio State University. However, he still had to wear several hats to pay his tuition. Nonetheless, he obtained 4 crowns in two consecutive years (1935-36) at NCAA (The National Collegiate Athletic Association).
He got the world record at 9.4 seconds in 100 yards and broke world records in long jump at 8.13 m and timed at 22.6 seconds in 220 yard hurdle event in Big Ten Conference (Athletic tournament in Midwestern) which was held at Michigan State in 1935. A record achieved by J.C on that day was selected as NBC’s the most impressive performance since 1850.
However, in addition to studies and exercises, there was another ‘Discomfort’ he had to bear. At that time, he had to use for Black-Only hotels and restaurants in other states due to the rampant racism at that time.
The Berlin Olympics he participated in 1936 was exploited as Nazi propaganda to emphasize the superiority of German people and Aryan race. J.C swept gold medals in long jump, 100m, 200m and 400m relay. In particular, his outstanding record 10.02 seconds in 100 m was broken after 20 years in 1956.
After winning the four gold medals, he received an enthusiastic welcome. Even German people gathered to get his autograph. Even in the United States he didn’t have to go to hotels and restaurant for Blacks.
There were wrong speculations on his achievements in the Berlin Olympic Games such as Hitler refused to shake hands with him. He bursted out with anger as soon as award ceremony was finished. It’s not clear which is wrong or right but he said that “It was Roosevelt who insulted me not Hitler.”
In fact, he never was invited to the White House by Roosevelt or his successor, Truman despite of his remarkable achievements in athletics. At that time, even winner of American College Football was invited in white house, but it might be regarded as an insult to 4 gold medals winner.
After leaving the sport, he started to do business in various fields such as horse racing, dry cleaners, gas stations, and movies. But many of businesses he took up became unsuccessful.
He made a comeback after difficult economic times. Although he was disqualified as an athlete, he was popular enough to be an honorary ambassador in various events or a speaker. He made lots of speeches regarding fair play, clean living and patriotism.
James Cleveland died on lung cancer at Tucson, Arizona in 1980. Lots of peoples evaluated that he was born a head of time. In particular, he regarded as a figure against racism and the he proved himself that the race is nothing to do with human being’s ability or worth.