Jesse Owens: A Tale of Two Lives

By Britt Masback

WANT Orginal Content

James Cleveland Owens, born in 1913 in Alabama, went from an often ill child who had to pick over 10 pounds of cotton a day to a four-time Olympic gold medalist and multiple event world record holder in the sport of track and field. After moving north at age nine, James Owens soon turned into Jesse Owens, when his elementary school teacher mistook J.C. for “Jesse” due to his thick southern timbre. At around the same time, Jesse began to learn of his passion for running, a passion that would lead to great fame. But, due to racism, Jesse Owens, an African-American, would end up racing horses to support his family.

Only a few days after the 81st anniversary of one of his greatest achievements — breaking or tying six world records in 45 minutes — a feat that will never again be achieved in any sport, it’s a good time to look back at that magical day, his life, and the recent film, Race, which chronicles his life.

Saturday, May 25, 1935. Only five days earlier, Jesse had fallen hard on his tailbone while roughhousing with his college dorm friends. His back wasn’t reacting well to treatment and he and Larry Snyder, his coach at Ohio State, weren’t even sure if he would be ready to run when the Big Ten Championships rolled around on May 25th. After much debate, Jesse and his coach decided he would take it event by event and see what happened. That decision turned out to be one that changed his life and the lives of the 10,000 spectators crammed into the wooden stands of Ferry Field stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


The first event of the day for Jesse was at 3:15 pm, the 100-yard dash. While the day before the competition he wasn’t able to bend to touch his knees, he later said that when he got to the 100-yard starting line the pain “miraculously disappeared.” He won the race in a world record tying 9.4 seconds (although half the timers clocked Jesse at 9.3 seconds). Next up, Jesse, concerned about his back, took one jump in the long jump competition. He jumped a new world record, 26 feet 8¼ inches, smashing the old record by more than half a foot and establishing a record that would stand for more than 25 years. Nine minutes after the long jump record, Jesse removed his sweat suit and went to the starting line for the 220 yards. He again won and set a new world record of 20.3 seconds. He is also credited with breaking the 200-meter world record, a shorter distance. The last event of the heroic day for Jesse was at 4:00 pm, exactly 45 minutes since his first world record. It was the 220-yard low hurdles. He won by five yards, breaking the 23-second barrier for the first time in history. Again, he also broke the 200 meters low hurdles record. With that, Jesse Owens had broken five world records and tied another in the amazing span of only 45 minutes. At the end of the day, so many people wanted to meet their hero and get an autograph, he had to climb out of a bathroom window to leave the locker room.

After his success in the 1935 Big Ten Championships, Jesse Owens acquired global fame and attention. Following a season in which Owens won all 42 events he entered, Jesse competed in the 1936 Olympic Games. The 1936 Games were in Berlin Germany, and Jesse was faced with both fans shouting racist slurs and fans shouting encouragement as he entered the stadium packed with over 110,00 fans for the first time. He had already faced many other challenges, including more media scrutiny than anyone else at the Games, with newspaper companies trying to find out what he was doing every minute he was in Berlin. More than that, there was tremendous pressure on him to succeed. Regular American citizens wanted to see their countryman win, but there was the added pressure of civil rights leaders who were looking for him to stand up to the Nazi government, which said that African-Americans were inferior.

On August 3rd, Jesse ran the first of his four events at the Olympic Games, the 100 meters. He won easily in 10.3 seconds. The next day was the long jump, which featured a battle between Jesse and a German athlete, Luz Long. The day got off to an unexpected start during the qualifying round, as Jesse fouled on both of his first two jumps, meaning he had to make his third jump or he would not move on to the final. Before his third and final jump, in a moment of sportsmanship rarely seen in Olympic sports, Luz Long went over and gave Owens a tip so he wouldn’t foul again. With Long’s help, Owens jumped 7.64 meters, qualifying for the final with the longest jump. In the final, things got off to a great start for Jesse, and he was in control through all six jumps, with a winning jump of just over 8 meters, beating Long by eight inches.

On August 5, Owens participated in his final individual event, the 200-meter dash. Owens, the heavy favorite heading into the race, beat his rival American, Mack Robinson, for the gold medal by four tenths of a second in an Olympic record time of 20.7 seconds. Owens’ final event of the Olympic Games was the 400-meter relay. The United States team had originally consisted of Frank Wykoff, Foy Draper, Marty Glickman, and Sam Stoller, but for reasons never officially revealed, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller were taken off the team the day of the race and replaced by Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. While both Owens and Metcalfe were better runners than Glickman and Stoller, American Coach, Lawson Robertson, said he changed the lineup because he feared losing to superior German runners. In reality, it is believed that he only explanation for a last minute change was that both Stoller and Glickman were Jewish, the “enemy” of Nazi Germany and Hitler. With Owens and Metcalfe, the United states won both their preliminary round and the final with ease, beating the Italians by more than a second and setting a new world record in the process. While winning his four gold medals, Jesse broke or equaled nine Olympic and four world records. In 1951, while touring with the Harlem Globetrotters, Owens made a triumphant return to the stadium that brought him his four gold medals. The Olympic stadium was not damaged during World War II and Jesse spoke before more than 75,000 fans wearing the track suit from 15 years earlier.


After the Olympics, Owens returned to the United States and received a hero’s welcome. He went on a ticker-tape parade along Manhattan’s Broadway Canyon of Heroes and a reception gala was held for him at a fancy hotel in New York. However, things went downhill from there for him. After he declined the invitation to travel to Sweden with the American national team, he was banned from running. He struggled for many years and had to race horses and do laundry to support his family. Years later, the U.S. government finally began to help him, and he was hired as a goodwill ambassador, traveling the globe, giving speeches, and mentoring young athletes. He remained involved in the Olympics, writing a book about his life in 1972 and lobbying against the 1980 Olympic boycott. Jesse Owens died on March 31, 1980, and was buried in Chicago.

Owens won virtually every award possible, including the Congressional Gold Medal. Looking back at the time immediately after his Olympic glory when he struggled to make ends meet, Owens said, “People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do?” “I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”


The film, Race, is about Jesse Owens’ life and came out on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon on May 31st and will be released on Netflix later this month. If you haven’t watched it yet, you should. It captures not only the many different facets of his life, but the hard times around him and the struggles he had to get through to win his four gold medals. The movie captures everything important in the compelling story of Owens, played by Stephan James. Director Stephen Hopkins was able to create Race in such a way that it appeals to both track and field fanatics and people simply looking for an interesting story. The movie is very visually interesting. The bleak scenes of 1930’s Ohio depict a nation working through the challenges of the Great Depression, yet Hopkins also shows scenes of the vibrant nightlife of the times. By capturing both aspects of the time period, the director creates a real atmosphere that engages the viewer. Even better, however, is the depiction of Nazi Germany. The old German buildings with Nazi propaganda represent what were horrific times perfectly. The anti-Jewish slogans on posters and walls across the country show how challenging the era was for Jews and other “inferior” races. Hopkins switches masterfully from exciting scenes inside the Olympic stadium to dark alleyways where Jews are being beat up and loaded into small vans to be taken away.

After the Olympics, where Race accurately portrays Owens as a hero, the movie depicts the hardships he endured as an African-American. The last scene of the movie captures this perfectly. Owens, his wife, and his coach were all attending a gala in celebration of Owens. When they get to the hotel where the gala is being staged, Owens is made to use the servants’ entrance, even though the party is for him.

Race captures the beauty and pageantry, political implications, and racial issues of the 1936 Olympics. It is a great tribute to the life of Owens, and if you haven’t done so yet, check it out.

Image Source: Danutz
















About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (

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