While Jesse Owens famously won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin to shatter Adolf Hitler's notions of Aryan athletic supremacy, his journey reflected the fleeting thrills of fame and the struggles of African Americans in a still-segregated 20th century United States. Here are five facts from the life of this groundbreaking athlete.
1. As a child, Owens nearly died from what likely was a fibrous tumor
Owens struggled with poor health as a child, regularly reeling from such illnesses as chronic bronchial congestion and pneumonia. But it was a lump on the frail 5-year-old’s chest that swelled over the course of several days that concerned his family the most. With no money to see a doctor, Owens' mother, Emma, eventually cut the lump off herself with a kitchen knife. The golfball-sized incision spurted blood for days, but Owens survived.
2. In 1935, a rival had supplanted Owens as America's best hope for track and field gold
Ohio State's Owens burst into the national spotlight in May 1935 when he set three world records and tied another at the Big Ten Championships, but that summer he often found himself on the heels of Temple University’s Eulace Peacock. Peacock bested Owens in the long jump and the 100 meters on July 4th, and at one point he beat Owens in five consecutive races. Former Olympic gold medalist Charles Paddock noted that Peacock was the only clear-cut choice for an Olympic berth, and Owens himself wondered how he could beat his new rival. But Peacock suffered a pulled hamstring later that summer and tore the hamstring the following April and never got the chance to compete in the Olympics.
3. Owens was the first prominent Adidas pitchman
The shoe line that would eventually be known as "Adidas" was founded in 1924 by German brothers Rudolf and Adolf “Adi” Dassler. Adi Dassler sought to promote his athletic footwear among the world's top athletes at the 1936 Olympics, with Owens reportedly one of his top targets. It is unclear exactly how Owens came into possession of the shoes; some stories indicate that Dassler approached him in the Olympic Village; others note that he asked German coach Jo Waitzer to pass on a few pairs to the American star. Whatever the means, Owens raced into the record books with his new shoes, which quickly became a popular brand, thanks to its association with the gold medalist.
4. One of the most famous moments of his record-breaking Olympics was a myth
Owens fouled the first two attempts of the broad jump, leaving him with just one opportunity to nail a clean jump to advance to the next round. According to the legend, German champion Luz Long helped Owens pinpoint a spot well behind the takeoff board, helping the American safely make his final attempt and setting the stage for their spectacular duel. It's a great anecdote about the triumph of sportsmanship and humanity, but unfortunately it wasn't true. Famed sportswriter Grantland Rice watched Owens through his binoculars during the qualifying round and never saw Owens and Long interact. Years later, when asked point blank about the moment by Tom Ecker, author of Olympic Facts and Fables, Owens admitted to fudging the truth. But the heart-lifting camaraderie between the two competitors wasn't entirely a myth, as cameras captured them walking arm-in-arm after Owens outlasted Luz to win the gold medal.
5. Owens made a triumphant return to Berlin in 1951
The post-Olympic years were difficult for the decorated champion, who competed in such sideshow events as racing horses and accepted several demeaning jobs to earn a living. Now touring with the Harlem Globetrotters, Owens received a rousing ovation before speaking to 75,000 fans at the Olympic Stadium. Acting mayor of West Berlin Walter Schreiber then took the microphone to proclaim, "Hitler wouldn't shake your hand—I give you both hands!" and reached for Owens' arms. Although the stories about Hitler refusing to acknowledge the African American Olympian may also have been exaggerated, the dramatic moment fit right into Owens’ wheelhouse, and he filed it away for use in what eventually became a successful public-speaking career.