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1936: The Olympic Games were being held in Berlin, Germany. Berlin was buzzing with excitement. The Nazi Party was currently in control at the time. Hitler deemed that his “perfect race” would dominate the games. Jesse Owens proved him wrong. Beating many Nazis, he became one of the best runners in history. Jesse’s life leading up to his performance at the 1936 Olympic Games was a hard one, being a sickly child living in a poor family.
On September 12, 1913, James Cleveland Owens, named J.C later, was born on a farm in Oakville, Alabama to Henry and Mary Emma Owens. They were both former slaves. He was the youngest of ten brothers and sisters. He grew up as a sickly child, constantly getting pneumonia and other illnesses. He had many other lung problems as well. In his daily life, he would work on the farm and going to a small, one room school house nine miles away from his home. When he was working on the farm he would help pick cotton out of the fields. He would pick about 100 pounds of cotton a day. This was hard on the child’s lungs, and with his lung problems, this wasn’t a good thing. When he was 10, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio to find better work. This transition was hard for this family from the deep South. There, he worked part time at a cobbler’s shop and got to attend a real school. On the first day of school, he told the teacher that his name was J.C. She misunderstood his southern accent and though he said Jesse. He was to shy to correct her, so this is how his name came to be.
By the time Jesse reached junior high, he was wise of the ways of the streets. There he met two people that would change the rest of his life. The first was Minnie Ruth Solomon, a young woman whose family had moved north from a farm in the south, just like Jesse’s family had just done. As high schoolers, they both fell in love fast. The second was Charles Riley, the man who introduced Jesse to track and field. He saw potential in him, even though he hadn’t shown any special athletic ability. To help Jesse, Charles beefed up his diet to help build up his muscles and help his still delicate legs. After this change in diet, Jesse impressed his new coach by running the 100- yard dash in 11 seconds, which was a remarkable time for a 15-year-old. After a while, Charles entered Jesse in other events, including the long and high jump. During this time of Jesse’s success, the Great Depression started. If not for his mother, Jesse would have had to leave school. But she insisted that he enroll at East Technical High School. Soon after Jesse’s enrollment, Charles Riley was hired as an assistant coach. Jesse continued to progress under Riley’s coaching. He was named captain of the track and field team at his school and was elected as the student body president. This was a huge accomplishment because he went to a predominantly white school. This went on to show his outgoing personality and his athletic accomplishments. His accomplishments in high school were a pre-cursor to his success to come.
In 1933 he entered Ohio State University under an unofficial scholarship. To make up for the money he worked part time jobs, such as a night elevator operator, pumped gas, worked in a library, and served as a page in the Ohio Statehouse. Jesse made his big appearance at the 1935 Big Ten meet in Michigan. The meet established his presence by finishing well in his events, winning three of his four. At the Big Ten Championship that may, he surprised people by breaking five world records and tying another, all in a span of 45 minutes. He almost didn’t compete because of a sore back that he had because of a fall down a flight of stairs. He eventually convinced his coach to let him compete. To test his back, he ran the 100- meter dash. He ran an amazing time of 9.3 seconds. That is where he became a national star. Three years before, Ruth Solomon, his soon to be wife, had given birth to a daughter. When Ruth’s parents, they wouldn’t allow her to see Jesse. Although they lived apart, Jesse still sent money to help Ruth pay for their daughter’s needs. In July of 1935, he married Ruth Solomon in Cleveland. The following year, he was suspended from the Ohio State track and field for poor grades. He worked hard to raise his average, just in time for the spring. He went to the Olympic trials for the 1936 summer Olympics. He dominated the sprint events there and emerged on the top of the American squad. Jesse’s amazing collegiate career was his introduction to the nation and the world and a sign of a soon to be great Olympian.
The crowd roared with excitement as the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympics games in Berlin began. With Adolf Hitler present, thousands of people stood and saluted the Nazi flag, showing their patriotism for their motherland. Hitler claimed that the Aryan race was going to dominate the games, but Jesse proved that Hitler’s “perfect race” wasn’t so perfect after all. Though, Jesse couldn’t have gone to these games if it hadn’t been for the decision of the United States Olympic Committee. As first, they were planning on boycotting the games because it might show support of the Nazi party’s racial beliefs and anti- Semitic policies. Evidence was being presented that Jewish athletes were not being treated fairly. The decision was made by the Amateur Athletic Union, the biggest non-profit organization in the nation that helps promote amateur athletics and physical fitness. The group in favor of no boycott won by two and a half votes. That meant that there would be a squad going to the Olympic Games. So, at that very Olympic Games, Jesse Owens showed his superiority in track and field. At these games, he stood at 5’10” and weighed 165 lbs. In Berlin, he won his first gold medal in the 100- yard dash with a time of 10.3. He then went on to capture the long jump with a world record breaking distance of 26 feet 5 inches. During this event, an incident happened that almost had Jesse disqualified from the event. During his practice jump, the judges counted it as his first jump. The next jump he jumped over the line, causing a fault on his part. Finally, on the last jump, he jumped his record- breaking leap, defeating his competition German Competition, Luz Long. After this event, Hitler refused to shake his hand after his win over Long. He then went on to go a record- shattering 20.7 in his 200- meter. He returned home a celebrity, hailed in open car parades and banquets. After the Olympics, Long and Owens became close friends for a long time. This relationship showed true sportsmanship that was to be showed at the games. Jesse’s Olympic experience not only showed his athletic ability, but he was also a voice for anti- racism saying that there was no dominant race.
Jesse’s life after the Olympics was a very sentimental time for him. Not only did he advertise for certain companies, he had jobs with certain associations. The things that he did after the Olympics earned him great sums of money. He talked at banquets, worked for endorsements, advertised, and much more. He was well known for talking to youth groups, professional organizations, civic meetings, sports banquets, PTA, church organizations, brotherhood and black history programs, as well as high schools and college ceremonies. He also had many jobs. He was a public relation s representative and consultant to many corporations, including Atlantic Richfield, Ford, and the United States Olympic Committee. He went on tour as a leader of a 12- piece orchestra. He went barnstorming with basketball and baseball teams and put on running exhibitions. But, the greatest job that he loved most was a playground director in Cleveland. He also worked with underprivileged children there too as a board member and former director of the Chicago Boys’ Club. He eventually couldn’t take the prolonged separation from his family, so he decided to open a Laundromat in the area of his home. In 1940 he suffered a double major loss when his mother died and the Internal Revenue Service got after him for back taxes. That forced him to close his business, lowering his income. Feeling bad for not working harder as a student, he was determined to go back to Ohio State to receive a degree since the loss of his business. Even though he tried hard, it was to difficult for him and he quit after a year. When World War II started he was hired by the government to organize physical- fitness programs. This helped him earn income after the fall of his company. After that, he took a satisfying job with the Ford Motor Company in Detroit to look after the social need of thousands of black workers on the Ford payroll. After the war, he moved to Chicago with his family. He then when into the public relations business, using his still- famous personality for the use of a variety of companies. His job became a boost when the Associated Press named him the greatest track-and-field athlete in history in 1950. As the years passed, he watched in sadness as his records were broken. He was a supporter of the black protest movement, but annoyed by it all at once. His still delicate lungs were still not holding up, and on March 31, 1980, James Cleveland Owens died of lung cancer.
Jesse Owens is said to have been one of the most accomplished and astounding runner in history. He beat many German athletes, proving that the Hitler’s “perfect race” was not perfect. He took the lead for many generations of athletes to come to work for you want and do not give up. The Berlin Olympics broke the popular idea of society that there is race that is dominant over another and that to do something successful, you must be one race. Jesse Owens was the man that proved society wrong.
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