Four Gold Medals and a Heart of Gold: The Jesse Owens Story

“We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.” – Jesse Owens

Black and white photograph of Jesse Owens smiling, wearing a sleeveless athletic top, capturing his positive demeanor and athletic build.
Jesse Owens, 1936

Fans adored Jesse Owens. Maybe it was because of his big smile. Or warm demeanor and appreciation for friendship. “Friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust,” he would say. Or maybe it was because of his enormous talent. Whatever the reasons, he was beloved.

Today, people often remember Jesse for his 1936 Olympic performance. When he went into Nazi Germany, and left with four gold medals and two world records. And even there, amid the hatred, Jesse left as the most popular athlete.

Jesse showed an early talent for running. And a love for the sport. “I always loved running… it was something you could do by yourself, and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs,” he said.

Stardom began in his early years while a student at East Technical High School in Cleveland, Ohio. He set national records and attracted the attention of college coaches. After high school, he enrolled at Ohio State University, where his track and field accomplishments continued, including a special day in 1935 when Jesse set three world records and tied another in a forty-five-minute span. And then, of course, there was the Olympics.

But life after the Olympics came with many challenges. Despite his successes, the U.S. of his time was amidst much racial discrimination, which he, too, experienced. He did whatever was necessary to earn money, including racing a horse. About the experience, he said, “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals. There was no television, no big advertising, no endorsements then. Not for a black man, anyway.”

Eventually, he found work as a salesman and later became a goodwill ambassador for the United States.

Jesse passed away from lung cancer on March 31, 1980, at the age of 66. He is remembered not only for his athletic achievements but also for his courage and perseverance in the face of racism and adversity.

Notes

If you enjoyed this snapshot biography of Jesse Owens, please consider supporting Historical Snapshots with a donation. Visit our Patreon page to donate. Your support is much appreciated.

Click here to read a snapshot biography of another athlete, Satchel Paige.

Sources

Bush, Joseph Bevans. “THE GRANDEST OLYMPIAN: JAMES CLEVELAND ‘JESSE’ OWENS.” Negro History Bulletin, vol. 25, no. 8, 1962, pp. 191–93. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44215768. Accessed 9 Mar. 2023. / “Owens pierced a myth” by Larry Schwartz / Wikimedia Commons

To Cite

Jesse Owens.” Published by Historical Snapshots.