Running for more than just the gold

Every four years Americans are united in their support of our Olympic athletes, cheering our nation’s best swimmers, fastest runners, most spectacular gymnasts and the many others who represent the red, white and blue. Unfortunately, this year’s Tokyo Olympics were among the many events cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak, but they have been rescheduled for next year.

Illinois has been home to its share of Olympic heroes, both summer and winter. Perhaps the greatest of these was a man whose heroics extended far beyond the athletic arena and who came from Ohio, but made Chicago his home later in life.

Jesse Owens made his first visit to Illinois in 1928, long before his rise to worldwide fame in track and field. The son of an Alabama sharecropper and grandson of an enslaved person, Owens competed in a national high school track meet in Chicago in which he not only won the 100-meter dash, but he set a world record. To top it off, he also claimed first in the 200-meters.

Running track at Ohio State, Owens dominated the Big Ten. He performed what a sportswriter later called, “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sports,” setting four world records in less than an hour at the Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1935. Owens was an obvious choice for the United States Olympic track and field team for the next year’s Olympic games.

Games which were held in the heart of Nazi Germany.

Owens stunned the world at the Berlin games, winning gold medals in both the 100 and 200-meters, as well as the long jump and as a member of the 4x100-meter relay team. The runner-up in the 100-meter race was Owens’ teammate and the future Illinois Congressman Ralph Metcalfe.

Legend has it that Hitler, shocked and furious at the public repudiation of his “master race” theory, shook hands only with the German medalists and then stormed out of the stadium. He did not greet another medalist for the remainder of the games. He would later claim that he had been scheduled to leave the stadium early all along.

What is not in dispute is the magnitude of Owens’ accomplishment, both athletically and politically. The four golds in a single Games placed him in elite company. The public discrediting of Hitler’s race rhetoric; in Berlin no less; made him a champion for all time. Even the crowd in the stadium, which some had feared would be hostile, gave Owens a rapturous ovation.

Owens returned home a hero. He was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York alongside the city’s mayor. But he was not allowed to enter a luxury New York hotel through the main entrance, and also did not receive public congratulations from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

After the Olympics, Owens accepted some endorsement opportunities, which caused him to be stripped of his amateur athlete status, effectively ending his athletic career. He struggled to find steady work in the following years, but that all changed when he made his way to Chicago.

Though his competition days were behind him, he was still a world-class athlete. He participated in a series of exhibitions against other runners and professional baseball players. Just to make it fair Owens would often give his opponents a ten-yard head start. He once even ran against a racehorse. Owens was skilled in other sports as well. In fact he was good enough to play a short stint with the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.

In Chicago Jesse Owens found his second calling as a youth advocate, working with disadvantaged students. He became involved with the Chicago Boys Club which served more than 1500 young Chicagoans. He later served on its board and even became its director. Likewise, Owens served the state of Illinois, working for more than five years as the sports specialist for the Illinois Youth Commission and Secretary of the Illinois State Athletic Commission. He was a sought-after public speaker and soon found business success in his own public relations and marketing firm in Chicago.

Owens frequently represented the United States abroad. In 1956 President Dwight Eisenhower picked Owens as his personal representative to the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. The State Department would later send Owens on goodwill missions to India and East Asia. His fame and popularity was just as great overseas. The West African nation of Ivory Coast named the street in front of the American embassy in his honor, and in 1982 the street leading to the Olympic stadium in Berlin was named for him as well. His room in the Berlin Olympic village is preserved as a museum site today.

In 1976, with members of the U.S. Olympic team bound for the Montreal games looking on, President Gerald Ford presented Owens with America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Jimmy Carter welcomed Owens back to the White House in 1979 to present him with the Living Legend Award.

But in spite of his great athletic skill one habit Owens was not able to kick was cigarettes. He was said to smoke as much as a full pack each day, and by the late 1970s his health was failing. He died of lung cancer on March 31, 1980.

At the time of his death, President Carter said, “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans.”

Jesse Owens and his wife Ruth.
Photo from The Ohio State University Archives.
But the Jesse Owens story does not end there. His wife of 48 years, Ruth, established and chaired the 
Jesse Owens Foundation, which would carry on the important work Owens did with youth in Chicago and elsewhere. Following her death in 2001, the couple’s three daughters continued the mission. The foundation has helped more than 600 students achieve a college education through the Ruth and Jesse Owens Scholars Program. It works to share the story of Jesse Owens, but also, “is particularly interested in helping individuals with the ambition, dedication and courage to achieve success against significant personal odds.”

Owens’ memory is well represented in his adopted home town. Chicago is home to a Jesse Owens school, a park, a community center and even a nature garden. He continues to be remembered on the national and worldwide stage as well. In 1990 President George Bush presented Ruth Owens with her husband’s posthumous Congressional Gold Medal. Owens’ story was the subject of the 2016 film Race.

Jesse Owens, the legendary American athlete who dazzled the world and humiliated an evil dictator on his home soil in front of the entire world, is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.