The 1936 Summer Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany. Adolf Hitler intended to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. Instead, the Games were all about sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens.
The son of a sharecropper – and grandson of a slave – Owens took the world by storm, winning four gold medals in the 1936 Games. Owens dominated the 100-meter, 200-meter and long jump and was part of the men’s 4×100-meter relay team.
Owen’s name is actually James Cleveland Owens (or “J.C.”). When he was nine years old, his teacher asked what his name was. When Owens replied “J.C.” with his southern accent, his teacher misinterpreted it for “Jesse.” And the name stuck ever since.
He began making rumblings in the track and field world when he equaled the world record in the 100-yard dash and long jump – while he was in high school. Representing East Technical High School in Cleveland, Owens ran the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds and jumped 24 feet, nine-and-a-half inches in the 1933 National High School Championships in Chicago.
He attended Ohio State University, where he won a record eight individual NCAA championships. He also set a world record in the long jump on May 25, 1935. The record would stand for 25 years.
Before the start of the 1936 Games, Owens became the first African-American to receive a sponsorship deal when he was approached by Adidas founder Adi Dassler. At the Games, Owens surprised many with his four gold medals. It wouldn’t be duplicated until 1984, when Carl Lewis won gold in the same events in the 1984 Olympics.
During his post-Olympic career, Owens traveled the world as a motivational speaker. He was also a public relations consultant to many organizations, including the International Olympic Committee.
Owens died in 1980 from lung cancer. Just before his death, he had pleaded with President Jimmy Carter not to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics, saying that the Games should be a break from war and politics.
Though Owens’ pleas were unsuccessful, President Carter saw Owens as a symbol of hope and pride.
“Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry,” President Carter said. “His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans.”