Jesse Owens is considered by many to be the greatest Olympian ever. Owens’ historic showing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics is the subject of a new film, Race, which stars Canadian actor Stephan James in the lead role, and makes its debut on Friday.
Owens was born James Cleveland Owens on September 12, 1913 to a family of sharecroppers in Oakville, Ala. A a sickly child at first, his athletic talent became obvious when he started running to school with his siblings. The Owens family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, where Owens became a nationally recognized high school track and field star known for shattering records in the long jump and 100m dash events.
The future legend would continue his streak of wins and recognition while attending Ohio State University, amassing several Big 10 championships and breaking more records. He was invited to participate in the 1936 Berlin Games while still a junior after a stellar showing at the 1936 Olympic Trials in New York.
According to historical accounts, baseball legend Babe Ruth had encouraging words for Owens before he headed into the hostile environment of Nazi Germany. German leader Adolf Hitler touted his belief of Aryan supremacy and used the Games to try to prove his twisted theory. Owens made it his mission to prove Hitler wrong. That focus, along with his determined quest to be the greatest athlete of his time, led to his historic achievements at the games.
Owens won four gold medals and broke three world records in the 100m dash, 200m dash, 4 x 100m relay, and the long jump events. In the long jump, Owens defeated German competitor Luz Long, who actually advised him on how to approach the event. The pair became friends and Owens spoke glowingly of Long well after the Games concluded.
Owens never returned to sports and instead attempted to use his fame for commercial endorsements and the like. He was eventually named a U.S. Goodwill Ambassador and worked as a humanitarian for several organizations. There are some accounts that Owens initially frowned upon civil rights activism and obvious displays of Black pride, but softened that stance after he experienced criticism.
Owens died at the age of 66 on March 31, 1980. He was survived by his wife and high school sweetheart, Minnie Ruth and three daughters, Gloria, Marlene and Beverly.
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