In 1935, at the age of 22, he set three world records and tied a fourth in less than an hour at the Big Ten Track Meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sportswriters dubbed it “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport!” The following year he won more Olympic gold medals than any man before him. Jesse Owens won four Gold Medals in the 100 Meter, 200 Meter, Long Jump and 4×100 Relay at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (GER).
He stood on the Olympic podium having reached the apex of athletic accomplishment, then Owens returned to American where racism was still prevalent. There were few corporate sponsorships back then for athletes and none for a black man. Owens needed to earn a living and had few options. He worked as a gas station attendant, playground janitor, managed a dry-cleaning business and struggled. He generated some income participating in running stunts during Negro League Baseball games by racing against local athletes, dogs, motorcycles and even horses.
In 1936, Owens ran against a race horse at the Cuban National Sports Festival in Havana. Given a 40-yard head start, Owens won the 100-yard race by “a nose”. Owens chose to run against particularly high-strung Thoroughbreds. The starter would stand near the horse who often startled at the starting gun allowing Owens to get a good lead. The strategy worked, Owens won more than he lost.
“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.”
Life improved for Owens by the 1950’s when he was appointed to the Illinois State Athletic Commission and in 1955 named Ambassador of Sports by President Eisenhower. In 1974, he was inducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame and in 1976, President Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Owens died March 31, 1980.
Today the Jesse Owens Award is the USA Track and Field’s highest accolade awarded to the best track and field athlete each year. ESPN ranks Owens as the sixth greatest North American athlete of the 20th century and the highest ranking in his sport.
Feature Photo Courtesy: The Ohio State University
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