Born on September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama, track and field athlete Jesse Owens starred in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi Germany. On the anniversary of his birth, explore 10 surprising facts about the man who was once the fastest in the world.
Owens captured four gold medals at a single Olympiad.
Although Adolf Hitler intended the 1936 Berlin Games to be a showcase for the Nazi ideology of Aryan racial supremacy, it was a black man who left the biggest imprint on that year’s Games. In one of the greatest performances in Olympic history, Owens captured gold in the 100 meters, long jump, 200 meters and 4×100 meter relay, a feat that would not be matched until American Carl Lewis did the same at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Owens said President Franklin D. Roosevelt, not Hitler, snubbed him.
In the immediate aftermath of the Berlin Games, a myth arose that Hitler, enraged at the triumph of an African American, refused to congratulate Owens on his victories because he failed to shake his hand. However, the press reported that the German leader gave the American sprinter a “friendly little Nazi salute,” and Owens said that the two exchanged congratulatory waves. In fact, it was the conduct of Roosevelt– who never invited Owens to the White House or acknowledged his triumphs–that disappointed the Olympic champion. “Hitler didn’t snub me—it was our president who snubbed me,” he said months after the Games. “The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
Owens ran to gold in German-made track shoes handcrafted by the founder of Adidas.
German shoemaker Adolf “Adi” Dassler didn’t view the Berlin Games as a vehicle for Nazi propaganda but as a chance to launch his humble athletic shoe business. He successfully lobbied not only German athletes, but Owens as well, to wear his personally handcrafted leather track shoes with extra long spikes. The American’s triumph helped to launch his business, and a decade later Dassler would start his own company—Adidas.
A teacher’s mispronunciation led to a name change.
Born James Cleveland Owens, the track star was called “J.C.” by his family. On his first day at Bolton Elementary School after moving to Cleveland at age 9, the teacher misheard his Alabama drawl and thought he said his name was “Jesse” instead of “J.C.” Owens was too shy to correct his new teacher in front of his new classmates, and he was called “Jesse” for the rest of his life.
His mother performed makeshift surgery on him with a knife.
Owens, the 10th and last child of a pair of poor sharecroppers, was a sickly child. The day after his 5th birthday, he developed a large fibrous bump on his chest that began to painfully press against his lungs. Unable to afford a doctor to remove it, his parents decided to perform the surgery on their own. As Owens bit down hard on a leather strap, his mother used a sterilized kitchen knife to carve into her son’s chest and remove a golf-ball sized growth. Owens suffered a great loss of blood but survived.
Owens was nicknamed the “Buckeye Bullet.”
After developing into a track and field star at a Cleveland high school, Owens enrolled at The Ohio State University. While smashing records for the Ohio State Buckeyes track team, he became known as the “Buckeye Bullet.” Although he was the first black man elected captain of an Ohio State varsity team, Owens was barred from living in the on-campus dormitory because of the color of his skin.
In college Owens set three world records and tied a fourth within the span of 45 minutes.
At the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 25, 1935, the sophomore speedster turned in a remarkable performance in spite of a severely injured tailbone that prevented him from even bending over to touch his knees. Owens began the meet tying the world record in the 100-yard dash. Fifteen minutes later he smashed the world long jump record by nearly six inches. Within the next half-hour, he also set world bests in the 220-yard dash and 220-yard low hurdles.
Owens raced against horses for money.
In spite of his fame on his return from Berlin, Owens struggled for money and began to participate in stunt races against dogs, motorcycles and even horses during halftime of soccer matches and between doubleheaders of Negro League baseball games. Owens would start 40 yards ahead of his equine competitors before sprinting for 100 yards, and he would often win by a nose. “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.”
The New York Mets baseball team hired Owens as a running coach.
In 1965, the downtrodden New York Mets hired Owens as a spring training running instructor to improve the players’ base-running techniques and foot speed. Not even an Olympic champion, though, could help the 1965 Mets, who stole only 28 bases while being caught stealing 42 times on their way to a last-place finish.
There are enduring memorials to Owens in Berlin.
In 1984, a street outside Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, where Owens shot to fame, was rechristened Jesse-Owens-Allee, and the section of the Olympic Village in which the sprinter stayed during the 1936 Summer Olympics features displays about the American champion.