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Jesse Owens

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James Cleveland Owens (September 12, 1913 - March 31, 1980) was an African-American athlete and civic leader. He was most famous for his participation in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany where he put the lie to Adolf Hitler's claims of German "Aryan superiority" by winning four gold medals and becoming the star of the games.

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Owens setting the world record in the long jump at the University of Michigan in 1935 (Larger Version)

He was born in Oakville, Alabama and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He was given the name Jesse by a Cleveland teacher who did not understand his accent when he said his initials were J.C.

In a span of 45 minutes on May 25, 1935 at the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he set world records in the long jump, 220-yard dash, and the 220-yard low hurdles and tied the record for the 100-yard dash.

He won gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympics in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, long jump, and on August 9, 1936 he won his fourth gold medal of the games as a member of the 4 x 100-meter relay team. This made him the first American to win four medals in one Olympics and this feat was not equalled until Carl Lewis won four medals in the 1984 Summer Olympics.

The Olympic victories had particular savor because Adolf Hitler had intended to use the games to promote "Aryan superiority". A persistent myth has grown up that Hitler, who had criticized African-American athletes as "black auxiliaries" and "non-humans", was in the stadium for some of Owens' events but had refused to acknowledge him after his remarkable performances. In fact Hitler was absent on the days in question and the German athletes and German public welcomed and praised Owens, just like everyone else.

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Medal ceremony for the long jump at the 1936 Olympics with Tajima, Owens and Lutz. (Larger Version)
After the games, he had difficulty making a living, however, and became a sports promoter, essentially promoting himself. He would give local sprinters ten or twenty yards start and still beat them in the 100 yd dash. He also challenged and defeated racehorses, although he revealed later that the trick was to race a high-strung thoroughbred horse that would be frightened by the starter's pistol and give him a good jump.

His promotion work eventually turned into a career in public relations, including a long stint as a popular jazz disc jockey in Chicago.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 by Gerald Ford and the Medal of Honor by George H. W. Bush posthumously on March 28, 1990. In 1984, a street in Berlin was renamed in his honor. All his life he attributed his career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his junior-high track coach, who had picked him off the playground and put him on the track team. (See Harrison Dillard, a Cleveland athlete inspired by Owens.)

Owens, a pack-a-day smoker for 35 years, died of lung cancer at age 66 in Tucson, Arizona. He is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery, in Chicago, Illinois.

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