Birth Of Superstar Athlete Jesse Owens

U.S. #3185j – From the Celebrate the Century series.
U.S. #3185j – from the Celebrate the Century Series

Born on September 12, 1913, Jesse Owens broke several track and field records and won four Olympic gold medals. He was ranked as the greatest athlete in the history of his sport.

The youngest of ten children, Owens spent his childhood in Alabama and then Ohio. He took on various jobs as a child to help out the family, including delivering groceries, loading freight cars, and working in a shoe repair store. He discovered his passion for running at an early age, which eventually earned him national attention in high school when he tied the world record for the 100-yard dash.

U.S. #3185j – 1998 Owens First Day Cover.
U.S. #3185j – 1998 Owens First Day Cover.

Owens’ star continued to shine in college. Attending Ohio State University, he became known as the “Buckeye Bullet.” Owens won a record eight individual NCAA championships. Then, on May 25, 1935, at the Big Ten Track Meet, he set three world records (long jump, 220-yard sprint, and 220-yard low hurdles) and tied a fourth (100-yard dash) in the course of just 45 minutes. It’s been called “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport.”

U.S. #3185j FDC – Owens First Day Cover with pictorial postmark.
U.S. #3185j FDC – Owens First Day Cover with pictorial postmark.

The following year Owens competed in the Berlin Olympics in Germany. Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler had planned to use the games as a display of German power and superiority. Hitler believed that Germans were the master race, and that European athletes were superior to any in the world, especially to minority athletes. Posters portraying this idea were hanging all over Berlin.

A German won the first event of the games, the shot put. Hitler met with this man to publicly congratulate him. But then Owens won the broad jump, and broke the world and Olympic records in the 200-meter dash. His appearance at the Olympics was completed the next day, when he was a member of the record-breaking 400-meter relay team. In all, Owens won four gold medals at those games, making him the most successful athlete of the competition credited with obliterating Hitler’s claims of Aryan superiority.

U.S. #2496 FDC – Owens silk cachet First Day Cover.
U.S. #2496 was issued in a booklet honoring five gold medal Olympians.

For many years, it was stated that Hitler only shook the hands of German victors at the games, some claiming he intentionally snubbed Owens. However, in later years Owens revealed he had a photograph of himself shaking hands with Hitler behind the honor stand, which is why international press didn’t capture it. Owens claimed it was “one of my most beautiful moments.” Though some back up his story, it’s unknown where the photo is today.

U.S. #2496 FDC – Owens silk cachet First Day Cover.
U.S. #2496 FDC – Owens silk cachet First Day Cover.

When he returned to America, President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t invite Owens to the White House. Owens went on to support Roosevelt’s opponent, Alf Landon, in the 1936 presidential race. At a speech that year, he stated, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

After the Olympics, Owens and the rest of the Olympic team were invited to compete in Switzerland. Owens declined, opting to return to the U.S. to take advantage of commercial offers he’d received. However, this upset American athletic officials who withdrew his amateur status, ending his career.

U.S. #2496 FDC – 1990 First Day Cover with portrait of Owens.
U.S. #2496 FDC – 1990 First Day Cover with portrait of Owens.

Owens was unable to formally compete for the rest of his life, though he remained connected to sports. He helped form the West Coast Baseball Association (WCBA) and was vice president of one of the teams. He toured with the team and entertained audiences between doubleheaders by racing against horses. He went on to try out other business ventures and was later a U.S. goodwill ambassador. Owens died on March 31, 1980.

Click here to watch a neat video about Owens’ accomplishments at the 1936 Olympics.

Click here to read last year’s discussion about This Day in History.

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  1. What a great story. My classmate, Bob Mathias from Tulare, California at age 17 won the Olympic decathlon to become the gtreat sport, along with Jesse Owens.

  2. If Jesse Owens was banned from further Olympic competition because of commercial interests, how is it that, today, American professional basketball players are allowed to compete against amateur players of other nations in the Olympics? What have I missed here? Was there a change in rules? It doesn’t seem fair.

  3. I appreciate the history lesson. I was aware that Hitler’s warped view was that the Aryan race was superior but I was unaware that FDR did not honor Jesse Owens in any way. It was ashame that the he was stripped of his amateur status. One can only wonder how many medals Jesse would have won in events after the ’36 games.

  4. Hard to know if everyone knows about Jesse Owens, but for us mature, a/k/a older folks, most of us do. What I didn’t know was how FDR snubbed him. Very interesting.

  5. Not a surprise that Owens was snubbed. Politics could have been why he was not invited to the White House. FDR was trying to get many programs through Congress that needed the support of Southern Democrats to pass. This was the 1930’s and Jim Crow laws dominated in the South. So in order to get these social reform laws through Congress FDR might have compromised many times to ensure the reforms he felt were needed to make this a better country for the poorer people who were in great number in the southern United States. Do not forget that when the Black singer Marian Anderson was not allowed to sing in a hall in the Washington, DC area in 1939 it was Eleanor Roosevelt, the President’s wife, who made it possible for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial, not Franklin Roosevelt. The 1930’s were an era of poverty and racism and politicians made choices we today find repugnant. Owens paid the price for these bad choices. Today laws prohibit many of these injustices but racism still poisons parts of our society and we must guard that policy reversals don’t rob our citizens of basic rights to be who they are without penalties.

  6. Thank you for these comments William Graff. When people talk about Jesse Owens, they usually talk about his athletic accomplishments but fail to note the overt racism that he, other black athletes, and millions of African Americans were subjected to on a daily basis.

  7. What a greatly-talented American athlete Jesse Owens was … and how sad, at the time, he was mistreated and ignored because of his skin-color, but he tried to live a better life, and smiled. History is what it was and cannot be changed. We must learn from mistakes made through history across the Globe … and, like everything, learn from it how to improve life on Earth. For example, the ONLY difference between two females on Earth … to explain … is the way they look every time you see one. It does NOT make ANY difference if the female is French, English, Japanese, Latino, Chinese, Hungarian, Indian or African, et al. They are identical, except that some may be taller, others shorter in height, thin or over-weight, well-educated or not … but THAT does not matter … just like males … women are all identical … EXCEPT for their height, weight, skin-color, hair-color or eye-shape. Period !! Jesse Owens should have been understood, recognized, respected, praised and celebrated during his lifetime, but, like I said, history is what it WAS at the time. Sadly, but true … but, like a LOT of other individuals from different cultures, races, … whatever ! … over the centuries … who were not respected as humans on Earth from the beginning of time … and still today … are mistreated because they are Muslim, Jewish, Christian … or because, of “the way they look.” To me, personally, it is hard to believe and damaging to man-kind … and needless !! But, obviously today, there are STIL hundreds of millions across the planet that do not agree with a lot of us here on Earth ! And, I guess, that is life today !!

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