Monday, September 12, 2011

Historical Figures: Jesse Owens (1913-1980)

Jesse Owens, American track and field athlete and Olympic gold medalist, was born "James Cleveland Owens" in Alabama on this day, September 12, in 1913. Owens was the seventh child born in his family, the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave. His track and field career began in junior high when Owens set junior high school records by clearing 6 feet in the high jump and leaping 22 feet 11 3/4 inches in the broad jump. In high school, Owens won all major track events including the Ohio state championship for three consecutive years; in his senior year, he set a new high school world record by running the 100 yard dash in 9.4 seconds to tie the world record. Owens's athletic career led to him being recruited by a number of colleges. He ultimately chose Ohio State where he continued to excel at the intercollegiate level winning four Big Ten titles, four NCAA titles, and 2 AAU titles.

After setting three world records and tying a fourth at the Big Ten Championships in 1935, Owens decided he was ready for the next level of competition. He entered the 1936 Olympics which were held in Germany. At this time, Germany was dominated by the beliefs of Adolf Hitler who believed that the Olympics Games would support the theory that the German 'Aryan' people were the dominant race. Amazingly, Jesse Owens became the first American to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad, taking home gold in the 100 meter dash, the long jump, the 200 meter dash, and the 400 meter relay. This achievement stood until 1984, 48 years later,  when Carl Lewis matched Owens in the Olympic gold medal count. After the Olympic Games, Owens traveled working as an inspirational speaker addressing youth groups, professional organizations, civic meetings and brotherhood and black history programs among others. Owens also took pride in working with underprivileged youth and served as a board member and former director of the Chicago Boys' Club. In 1976, President Gerald Ford presented him with the Congressional Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed upon a civilian and  in February 1979, President Jimmy Carter presented Owens with the Living Legend Award. Owens died a year later on March 31, 1980 in Arizona from complications due to lung cancer. President George H.W. Bush awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously in 1990. Although others such as Michael Phelps have won more medals than Owens, he remains one of the best remembered Olympic athletes because he achieved what no one before him had during a time of great segregation and discrimination against all the odds.


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