The Sad, Strange Tale of Jesse Owens

By Johnny Ginter on April 9, 2014 at 5:05p

Jesse Owens is one of Ohio's truly mythic heroes. He's John Brown and Captain America rolled up into one man; a superhero who we laud but usually know next to nothing about besides a breathtaking performance on the track over the course of 45 minutes and travelling to Germany to chuck the idea of Aryan supremacy into the garbage disposal of history where it belonged.

And that's enough for a myth. You make Hitler look like a gigantic tool on his home turf, and you're pretty much set for life in the hearts and minds of any freedom loving human being for the rest of eternity. Your life, your actual life that you lived, doesn't really matter all that much anymore. What does matter is that people can make statues of you and name things after you and maybe vote for you in an online poll every once in a while, and that makes them happy. Because the memory of you doing what you did and how you did it was all the eulogy that anyone will ever need.

But, if we're going to talk about the guy, the first thing that we should do is get his name right.

Jesse Owens was actually born James Cleveland Owens, and "Jesse" is owed to a teacher with a bad knack for southern accents. Ohio claims Owens, and it should, because just as millions of other blacks did in the early part of the 20th century, Owens and his family left a deeply segregated Alabama for better job and living opportunities in the north. So when J.C.'s drawl made out "Jesse" to his teacher's ears, the name stuck, and it would be the first of a lifetime of weird distortions of who Owens was.

For instance: Owens was never a scholarship athlete at Ohio State. OSU didn't offer scholarships to track and field athletes, so Owens had to take on a number of odd jobs, including acting as a page at the statehouse, to get by in college. He was also repeatedly subjected to the casual and overt racism of the time; Ohio State  didn't even allow Owens to live on campus.

Still, he was an outstanding track and field performer, obviously. His 1935 performance at the Big Ten championships is rightfully regarded as a big deal (despite the fact that three of the events that he set records in aren't even used anymore), but it really shouldn't be that he set those records that impresses you, it should be the longevity of those records. His long jump of almost 27 feet remained untouched for over 25 years after he set it. His 100 yard dash lasted for 15.

So it was no surprise that Owens dominated in the Berlin Olympic games a year later. According to our favorite mythologies, Owens runs really fast, jumps really far, and Hitler throws a hissy fit while a unassuming black man shatters his misconceptions about race and athleticism. And Owens kind of did that. Hitler was reportedly at least irritated with Owens' success, handwaving it away as just part of the inherent physical advantages of an uncivilized race.

But at least Hitler had a reaction. Owens had this to say about the matter:

"Hitler didn't snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram."

I think that in a lot of ways the experiences that Owens had with racism as a young man should inform some of the choices that he made as an adult. Even during the ticker tape parades and interviews and photo ops, Owens and his family were subjected to subtle, persistent racism; his family was denied rooms at hotels in New York City, were forced to ride freight elevators, and as an amateur athlete Owens was denied any real opportunity to make money off of his image. Owens refused to acknowledge that stance, and cashed in anyway.

Come and see

Whether that denial of income can be attributable to racism is debatable, but by the 1940s he had been stripped of amateur status by the governing bodies in the United States, and had been reduced, again, to working odd jobs for money.

Images like this one of Jesse Owens racing horses seem quaint and silly, but they were also desperate money making ideas from a man without a steady source of income. Bizarrely, Owens also helped promote Mom and Dad, a lurid exploitation film which masqueraded as an educational health movie to get around various film codes prohibiting smoking, violence, and nudity. Eventually, Owens was reduced to working as a gas station attendant and was prosecuted for tax evasion. If not for a lenient judge, could've ended up serving hard time for not reporting his income.

That's the Jesse Owens that I think people need to be aware of; a man denied his place at a table due to an inherently racist and unfair system, who in his own words simply wanted "something for himself." That he was critical of Tommie Smith and John Carlos' black power salute in the 1968 Olympics isn't surprising:

The only time the black fist has significance is when there's money inside. There's where the power lies.

And neither is his retraction, where he praised Smith and Carlos in a later book.

Because that's the rub: we remember Jesse Owens for two singular events, and we want to keep it that way. When Owens wanted to parlay that into a longer legacy, he was ignored and denied opportunities to do so, and it was only when he hit relative rock bottom that people began to see the injustice of an Olympic hero resorting to pumping gas and promoting stag films. He spent the remainder of his life promoting the Olympics and being an international ambassador for United States sports, a role most people would see as more befitting a man who pantsed the Nazis on their home turf.

The story of Jesse Owens is fascinating to me because it's more than just a story of a person who achieved Olympic glory early in life and then coasted on his accolades until a peaceful death surrounded by adoring friends and family. He was forced to be opportunistic because of an unfair system of stark amateurism that was reinforced by the endemic racism that existed in the United States.

Other athletes could use their celebrity as a means to make a buck without worrying about being shut out from other jobs because of the color of their skin; Owens didn't have that luxury. Other athletes were able to make sound investments to keep their finances in order; Owens did not. Other athletes felt that they had the security and standing to back the actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos; Owens found that difficult.

There's more than an incidental connection to today in Jesse Owens' life to the situation that collegiate athletes find themselves in today. Obviously the racism that impacted Owens' life is less of a factor today, but it's telling that the NCAA in 2014 has roughly the same attitude toward maintaining a facade of amateurism that the Olympics had in the 1940s. It took decades for the IOC to rectify these policies for the better, at the expense of the livelihoods of people like Jesse Owens. Hopefully it doesn't take the NCAA as long to take a more proactive stance about the ability of their student-athletes to have something for themselves.

James Cleveland Owens lived a complex, difficult life. I'm sure that he and his family took comfort that he was given the recognition and legacy that he deserved later in life, as he worked with the United States Olympic committee. But the lessons of his life, his entire life, are just as important to learn as any jump he ever made or any race he ever won.


Comments Show All Comments

Borrowed Time's picture

bravo, Johnny. Thank you for the insight.

+8 HS
Chestnut Ridge Buckeye's picture

I'd always wondered why there was no real follow-up in mentions of his stellar accomplishments. Thank you, Johnny for enlightening me about what I intuitively knew but didn't want to acknowledge.

Boston Buckeye's picture

Excellent article. Amidst all of the patriotism and symbolism of the Berlin games we forget that he was still a Black man in the 1940s in middle America. It is good to be reminded of what really happened when the lights faded.

You can take the girl out of Ohio, but you can't take the Ohio out of the girl

+4 HS
hudsonsamuel's picture

As soon as college players get paid,I will cease to be a fan, even of  my Beloved Buckeyes.

What you are speaks so loud,I can't hear a word you say.

-3 HS
Buckeye in Illini country's picture


Columbus to Pasadena: 35 hours.  "We're on a road trip through the desert looking for strippers and cocaine... and Rose Bowl wins!"

+4 HS
d5k's picture

They get paid now (stipend).  I also got paid when I had an academic scholarship > full tuition.

+6 HS
Poison nuts's picture

This article wasn't about college footballers making money. It was about Jesse Owens not being able to cash in on his accomplishments. Your comment is strange.

BTW - great article!

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

D-Day0043's picture

Wonderful piece. Great job!

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.

buckeyeEddie27's picture

Well timed and well written piece.   Very nice Johnny.

I know there's a game Saturday, and my ass will be there.'s picture

Both of Owens's daughters attended Ohio State. I had the privilege of meeting one of his daughters outside the Shoe after an Ohio State game. We lost that game (to Minnesota of all teams) and I was walking out and saw her and her husband. She was wearing a sweatshirt with the Jesse Owens postage stamp on it and I complimented her on her choice of gear and remarked that every time I visit campus I always stop off to see Jesse Owens's shoe in the museum (It used to be in St John). Her husband remarked that I was talking to Jesse's daughter. I was floored. A crappy day turned into one I will never forget for that memory. 

I am happy he won the challenge. Thanks for the article. 


+14 HS
buckeyeradar's picture

I too had an encounter at the shoe but with Jessie's wife.  I was an usher and was able to seat her.  What a nice person who said her husband loved Ohio State.  She wanted to talk so I was able to take it all in.  She said she thought Jessie would have loved to out run all the players on the field but worried he was too small to handle the hits.  The whole family loved The Ohio State University.

I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box but I'm one of the most colorful.

+2 HS
NitroBuck's picture

But the lessons of his life, his entire life, are just as important to learn as any jump he ever made or any race he ever won.

Eloquently stated, Johnny, and oh so true.  Thank you for telling the rest of his story.  We have made some great strides in this country, yet there is still so much further to go.

Ferio.  Tego.

+1 HS
OSU_ALUM_05's picture

Does anyone know if he was celebrated or honored by Ohio State during his lifetime, whether right after the Olympics or later in life?

Yeti's have feelings too.

Fort Seneca Steve's picture

Thanks for the great article and true story of Mr. Jesse Owens.  Back in the summer of 1984, a made for TV movie - "The Jesse Owens Story"  starring Dorian Harewood as Jesse Owens told a similar true story of the life of Jesse.  It was a two night movie and moved me greatly back then.  I was a graduate student at Ohio State and I felt real sadness for the way OSU, America, and everyone treated Mr Owens before and after his great accomplishment at the Berlin Olympics.  More great Americans like Mr. James Cleveland Owens and what a great country this would be again.

Before there was Larry Bird, there was "Hondo" John Havilcek! The Pride of Martins Ferry, Ohio!

+2 HS
NitroBuck's picture

That was a good movie, and a real eye opener.

Ferio.  Tego.

DoubleB's picture

Great write up, thanks for the wonderful insight. Often forget that after Berlin he returned to 40's America.


AngryWoody's picture

Four years earlier the show was stolen by Detroit Cass Tech and Michigan footballer Eddie Tolan AKA "The Midnight Express". Tolan broke multiple world records and won two gold medals in the 1932 Olympic games. Eddie was known as the world's fastest human until Ohio State's Jesse Owens broke Tolan's records and won 4 Gold medals in 1936. The amount of athletic talent in this area in that period of time was really amazing.

Our Honor Defend!

+1 HS
osubuck57's picture

Great read. Think a lot of folks have forgotten about all of Jesses' accomplishments on and off the track. Wish they would do an updated film about him, like they did with Jackie Robinson, in "42".


ScarletNGrey01's picture

My idealized assumption about Jesse Owen's life was shattered by this excellent article, ashamed to say I never studied his life in any depth.  Very sobering and insightful, thanks Johnny, well done.

The will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win. -- Woody Hayes

+3 HS
Doc's picture

Bravo, Johnny!  Bravo!  What a great piece. Jesse deserves his place on the top of the 11W Mountain.

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

MVJ's picture

Great piece, Johnny. Another interesting story related to Jesse Owens, is that one of his daughters won Homecoming Queen while she was a student at Ohio State. After the ceremony, Jesse was quoted as saying, "Only in America, only in America..." I've heard that quote used as a symbol for our country overcoming its history of racism - but placed in the broader context of this story, you can see how there could be so many different ways to interpret that statement and his feelings toward Ohio State.

"You win with people "

+1 HS
VintonCountyBuck's picture

I totally read this to myself in the voice of Paul Harvey.  Well done my friend.

“Right now, Michigan is not at the pinnacle of college football, and that’s all Urban Meyer cares about...He’s been there and knows what it takes to get there.” 

+1 HS
wyatt's picture

I always heard that Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals and upstaged Hitler but couldn't get a room back in the USA nor a mention from the President.  Amazing how most people never know the real facts until later.

AltaBuck's picture

Originally aired roughly 2 years ago, I thought American Experience produced a credible account of Jesse's story.  If you have not watched it, I highly recommend it.

I am Groot - Groot

+1 HS
BeijingBucks's picture

Wow. Fantastic read.  I only knew a rough overview of his life's challenges. The fact he has even a tacit relationship with Ohio State makes me even more proud to be a Buckeye.  

Give that man a buckeye! 

Even happier he won the deeply meaningful and rewarding plaudits of a 11w title as greatest Ohioan. 

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

Buckeyeneer's picture

I had read before that America was trying to make a big deal about Hitler snubbing him and how he felt snubbed more by Americans than Germans and by FDR more then Hitler. I was going to make that comment during voting but wanted to allow the blissful ignorance of believing that one of America's and Ohio's great heroes was treated the way they deserved to be treated. Sadly it was worse than I thought and I'm embarrassed at his treatment. What a wonderful and eye-opening article!

"Because the rules won't let you go for three." - Woody Hayes

THE Ohio State University

Firedup's picture

Jeremy  Schaap recently wrote a book called Triumph focusing on the complexities and misconceptions Owens. Definitely worth a read 

"Making the Great State of Ohio Proud!" UFM

BeijingBucks's picture

my mom just informed me she was his daughter's roommate at OSU.  #floored

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

Bourbon Meyer's picture

So did Adolph "6 Million Jews" Hitler shake Jesse Owens hand or not? Also, did FDR really ignore Jesse Owens feat? The record needs to be set straight.

hspbuy1's picture

Great read, Thanks Johnny!