In history, men existed who with their way of life have inspired many others to act for something better. Some used words, other actions. But all simply did not quit even when facing enormous obstacles in they way.
The American athlete Jesse Owens was one of those men.
James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was born on September 12, 1913, to Henry and Emma Owens. In his early years, he suffered from health problems. In fact, he almost died while suffering from a recurrent pneumonia. His mother helped him to overcome his illness and get back to his feet.
It was a difficult time for Jesse. His family was poor and like other black people at that time in America, they were also mistreated. His father, Henry Owens, was only skilled in farming and had difficulty finding another job which made things even worse for the family. Jesse’s brothers had to work hard too in order to get by.
After his family moved to Cleveland, Jesse Owens became involved in athletics for the first time. His coach at his high school, Charles Riley, encouraged him to take up running to improve his health and make his lungs stronger. Jesse first declined the offer because he had to work after school. But when Riley later suggested that he come one hour earlier to school to train, Jesse agreed to do it.
Gradually, he fell in love with running and began to transform into a champion on the track.
His success on the red track brought him many scholarships but Owens decided to reject them. He told his coach that he couldn’t bear living well while other members of his family lived in hunger. He took several jobs during that time to support himself.
On May 25, 1935, Jesse Owens competed at the Big Ten College Track and Field Championships in Michigan. He broke three world records and tied a fourth. What was even more impressive was that he did all of that while having an injured back.
Jesse Owens was starting to become one of the most popular athletes in America at that time. But the real success came when he competed at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Adolf Hitler was the head of Germany and the Olympics were then organized by the Nazis to show the revival of their country after the first World War. The Nazi ideologies had engulfed the whole of Germany and were dominating the atmosphere of the Olympics.
Adolf Hitler intended to use these Olympics as a podium to sell his ideology to the world—the ideology that a “supreme” race exists.
However, he had hugely underestimated one of the participants.
Jesse Owens, being one of the few black athletes at the Olympics, dealt a heavy blow to that Nazi ideology by winning four gold medals—in 100 m, 200 m, 400 m relay, and the long jump). In fact, Hitler was so deeply disappointed that his German athletes did not win all of the events that he refused to shake the hand of the man causing the turmoil.
His real feelings were later revealed in the memoirs of one his ministers, Albert Speer:
“Each of the German victories and there were a surprising number of these made him happy, but he was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvellous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games” (Inside the Third Reich, p.73)
Jesse Owens was hardly affected by Hitler’s feelings though. He broke two more Olympic records and tied another. He succeeded in winning the hearts of the 110,000 people in the Berlin’s Olympic Stadium and they cheered for him during his races. After the games, people sought him to ask for his autograph.
Even after this great defying act in Berlin, Owens’s battles for equality did not end. He was appalled by the unfair way black people were treated in his own country. He later became a philanthropist, giving speeches in India and East Asia, which he visited as a messenger of goodwill.
Jesse Owens died on March 30, 1980 from lung cancer.
Jesse Owens was a man who had a dream. That dream was of equality and of love—love towards fellow humans. He lived that dream which was directly opposed to that one of the Nazis. And he came out on top triumphing over their ideology in the heart of the Nazi’s country then.
He had a dream that every human wishes to have, but not every human has the courage to follow. Jesse Owens was an American athlete but was also much more than that. He was a representative of humanity.
“May his light shine forever as a symbol for all who run for the freedom of sport,
for the spirit of humanity, for the memory of Jesse Owens.” (Charles Chigna)