Sunday, May 29, 2016
Jesse Owens: from Alabama to Olympic glory
New movie Race tells his story of Jesse Owens, one of the most significant figures of the 20th century whose achievements went far beyond the sporting field
The life of Jesse Owens was no fairy tale. Born in 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, he was the youngest of 10 children and grandson of a slave.
Abraham Lincoln had emancipated the slaves half a century earlier, but his father was a sharecropper – a cog in a semi-feudal system whereby small tenant farmers paid their rent with a share of the crops they raised.
As a boy Owens was sickly, suffering from bronchitis and pneumonia, but he had to help out in the fields. By the age of six, he was picking up to 100lb a day of cotton during harvest time. With no money to pay a doctor, his mother once removed a growth from his chest with a knife. Yet already he loved to run.
Moving to the next level: Jesse Owens winning a race in 1933
The break in the family’s fortunes came when Owens was nine. His family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in search of a better life in the booming steel town. They were part of the Great Migration, in which 1.5 million blacks gravitated to the cities in search of industrial work. His father Henry and elder brothers got jobs in the steel mills while Jesse enrolled at Bolton Elementary School.
Owens was philosophical about his childhood. “We used to have a lot of fun. We never had any problems. We always ate. The fact that we didn’t have steak? Who had steak?”
His first contact with someone who grasped his extraordinary athletic potential came at Fairmount Junior High School in Cleveland. Charles Riley noticed the 15-year-old running in the playground and encouraged him to train before school. Owens combined his training schedule with jobs delivering groceries, loading freight cars and working in a shoe repair shop.
“I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible. From the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up
Owens also met his future wife, Minnie Ruth Solomon, then 13, in 1928 and they began dating. They married in 1935, having already had the first of their three daughters. They remained together until Owens died in 1980. She was always a staunch support, seeing the marriage as a partnership. She supported many charities, and chaired the foundation set up in his name.
Records continued to fall in sprint and jump events as Owens moved on to East Cleveland Technical High. Riley followed him there as assistant volunteer coach. Owens was taught to run as if the track were on fire, saying later: “I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible. From the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up.”
Owens was inundated with university offers but opted for Ohio State University, where coach Larry Snyder became a new mentor. Though Ohio offered no track scholarships, Snyder was one of few US coaches who allowed black athletes to compete. To pay his fees, Owens grafted away as a lift operator, pumped gas, waited tables, and became an honorary page at the Ohio Statehouse.
Although he was the first black captain of Ohio State’s athletics team, he was not allowed to live on campus, eat at the same restaurants as white team-mates when travelling, or stay in white-designated hotels.
In 1935 he capped his record of collegiate victories by setting world records in three events (long jump, 220-yard sprint and 220-yard low hurdles) and matching a fourth (100-yard sprint) in just 45 minutes at the Big Ten athletics meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Four gold medals were what he achieved at the Berlin Olympics a year later, the first televised Games. He won in the 100m and 200m sprint, the 4x100m sprint relay, and the long jump, for which he credited the friendly advice of German jumper Lutz Long. “I decided I wasn’t going to come down. I was going to fly. I was going to stay up in the air forever,” he recalled.
Irrespective of controversy over whether Hitler snubbed him or not, he had emphatically denied the Nazis the propaganda victory they sought for Aryan supremacy. Hitler was appalled, while Owens was, for a time, the most famous man in the world. Yet there was no ambiguity about his reception when he went home. He had received no presidential congratulatory telegram, and there was no invitation waiting to shake the hand of President Franklin D Roosevelt at the White House.
When Owens was stripped of his amateur status soon after, he also lost out on lucrative sponsorship deals. He said; “After I came home from the 1936 Olympics with my four medals, it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But nobody was going to offer me a job.”
In the years that followed, Owens took many different diverse jobs, from starting a dry-cleaning business to a government role as director of national fitness; from being an African-American personnel director at Ford to working as a training and running coach for the New York Mets.
Owens also worked in motivational speaking, international coaching and public relations. As the years went by, a steady stream of honours followed, culminating in 1976 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian award. Owens died four years later of lung cancer in Tucson, Arizona. He was 66.
By Benedict White