Jesse Owens: 1913-1980
He was a superlative athlete, but that was almost incidental to the role he came to play in history. He happened to be black, and his timing was perfect. Thus James Cleveland ("Jesse") Owens became forever a symbol of the triumph of the individual over man's more malevolent impulses. At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which Adolf Hitler hoped would be a showcase of Aryan supremacy, Owens won four gold medals in track and field events, a feat not equaled since. The sight of the graceful American's soaring victory in the long jump and his Olympic-record wins in the 100-and 200-meter dashes and 400-meter relay put the lie to der Führer's simplistic myths about race.
With international conflict clouding the Games once again, Owens' feat takes on a special resonance. In 1936 many voices called for a boycott of the Berlin Olympics to protest the policies of the host nation, as President Carter has done in the case of the 1980 Moscow Games. But while Owens' performance vindicated his own belief that the Olympics should not be suborned by politics, it was, of course, played as a political triumph by the foes of Nazism. Almost forgotten is the fact that two Jewish sprinters who had qualified for the U.S. 400-meter relay team were not allowed to compete. And as Owens later noted, "When I came back to my native country, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go in the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. Now what's the difference?"
On the field, the difference was his skill. At a meet a year before the Games, while a student at Ohio State, he broke three world marks and tied another in just 45 minutes of competition. His times in the 100- and 200-meter dashes in Berlin still would have won Olympic medals as late as 1964.
The son of an Alabama tenant farmer, Owens was a schoolboy track star in Cleveland. He worked his way through Ohio State as a night elevator operator, and after his Olympic triumphs pursued a variety of jobs: disc jockey, bandleader, salesman. A forceful speaker, he eventually prospered as a lecturer and headed his own Phoenix public relations firm. Until he entered the hospital in December, stricken by the lung cancer that killed him last week at the age of 66, he was, appropriately, serving as the State Department's "Ambassador to Sports."