Jesse Owens is a well-known name in the sporting world and further afield. His achievements shook the world both in sporting merit and politically. His life was not easy but it was never an excuse for Owens who took everything in his stride and saw problems far simpler than most people can.
Owens came from a large family in Alabama. He was one of 10 children and as the youngest had to fight for everything he got in life. He suffered numerous illnesses as a child and was generally sick in some way. During his childhood, he recovered from pneumonia among other diseases. However, even with his record of illness he still had to work on the family farm. His family was poor and he would have to carry large quantities of cotton every day. If he needed a doctor there was no money to afford one. He has told one story to summarize his poverty where he had a worrying growth on his chest. Rather than visit a doctor, his mother cut it out.
Yet Owens describes it as a happy childhood. There was no fighting and lots of time to play and there was always food on the table. While he did not get to have some of the finer things in life, no one he knew did either, so he felt he was missing nothing of importance. The one thing he truly loved from an early age was running.
While Owens had to work to help his family while he attended high school, he still found time to train. His talent was evident at an early age and it allowed him to go to university. Although he couldn’t get a scholarship, he worked tirelessly to earn the money to go. It was here that he started to break many records and really get noticed. At the time black people still faced incredible discrimination and Ohio State University was one of the few universities that allowed black people to race. Despite this Owens was not allowed to live on campus, not allowed to eat in the same restaurants as white people or stay in the same hotels.
When the 1936 Olympics came around it was set to be the first televised Olympics ever. The event was also something much more important. Hitler’s Nazi party was growing in power in Europe and the racist ideologies that he had spread were embedding. He believed that the German Aryan race was superior to anyone else in the world and would crush all opposition. His racist views placed Jewish people and black people at the bottom of his expectation. Yet Jesse Owens arrived and demolished any thoughts about his ability or that of his race. He won four gold medals in the event, in the 100m, the 200m, the 4x100m, and the long jump.
Those Olympics are today often retold as America’s battle with racist Germany. However, this was not the case. While the American team was happy to use Owens to win medals, he was never treated as an equal. When he returned home, he should have been greeted with a parade but was given nothing. There was no reception and while many congratulated Owens when they saw him in the street and briefly celebrated him, no one would help him. He found it tough to get a job when he got home and despite his achievements was still treated as a lesser individual.
Times did slowly change although more change is required. Owens was finally recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976. He died four years later perhaps finally able to rest knowing that his incredible achievements were no longer being ignored.