This is Gwen Outen.
And this is Steve
Ember with People in America in VOA Special English. Every week we tell about a person who was
important in the history of the United States.
Today we tell
story of athlete Jesse Owens. He once was the fastest runner in the world.
the summer of nineteen thirty-six, people all over the world heard the name of
Jesse Owens. That summer, Owens joined the best athletes from fifty nations to
compete in the Olympic games. They met in Berlin, Germany. There was special
interest in the Olympic games that year.
Hitler was the leader of Germany. Hitler and his Nazi party believed that white
people -- especially German people – were the best race of people on Earth.
They believed that other races of people -- especially those with dark skin --
were almost less than human.
the summer of nineteen thirty-six, Hitler wanted to prove his beliefs to the
world. He wanted to show that German athletes could win every important
competition. After all, only a few weeks before the Olympics, German boxer Max
Schmeling had defeated the great American heavyweight Joe Louis, a black man.
Owens was black, too. Until nineteen thirty-six, very few black athletes had
competed in the Olympics for the United States. Owens was proud to be on the
team. He was very sure of his ability.
spent one week competing in four different Olympic track and field events in
Berlin. During that time, he did not think much about the color of his skin, or
about Adolf Hitler.
said later: "I was looking only at the finish line. I thought of all the
years of practice and competition, and of all who believed in me."
do not know what Hitler thought of Jesse Owens. No one recorded what he said
about this black man who ran faster and jumped farther than any man of any
color at the Olympic games. But we can still see Jesse Owens as Hitler saw him.
For at Hitler's request, motion pictures were made of the Berlin Olympic games.
films show Jesse Owens as a thin, but powerfully-built young man with smooth
brown skin and short hair. When he ran, he seemed to move without effort. When
he jumped, as one observer said, he seemed to jump clear out of Germany.
Owens won the highest award -- the Gold Medal -- in all four of the Olympic
competitions he entered. In the one-hundred meter run, he equaled the fastest
time ever run in that Olympic event. In
the long jump and the two-hundred meter run, he set new Olympic records. And as
part of a four-man team, he helped set a new world record for the four-hundred
meter relay race. He was the first American in the history of Olympic track and
field events to win four Gold Medals in a single Olympics.
Olympic victories made him a hero. He returned home to parades in New York City
and Columbus, Ohio, where he attended the state university. Businessmen paid
him for the right to use his name on their stores. No one, however, offered him
a permanent job.
many years after the nineteen thirty-six Olympic games, Jesse Owens survived as
best he could. He worked at small jobs. He even used his athletic abilities,
but in a sad way. He earned money by running races against people, motorcycles
and horses. He and his wife and three
daughters saw both good times and bad times.
Poverty was not new to James Cleveland
Owens. He was born in nineteen thirteen
on a farm in the southern state of Alabama. He was the youngest of thirteen
children. His parents did not own the farm, and earned little money. Jesse
remembered that there was rarely enough food to eat. And there was not enough
fuel to heat the house in winter.
of Jesse's brothers and sisters died while still young. Jesse was a sickly
child. Partly because of this, and partly because of the racial hatred they saw
around them, Jesse's parents decided to leave the South. They moved north, to
Cleveland, Ohio, when Jesse was eight years old. The large family lived in a
few small rooms in a part of the city that was neither friendly nor pleasant to
father was no longer young or strong. He was unable to find a good job. Most of
the time, no one would give him any work at all. But Jesse's older brothers
were able to get jobs in factories. So life was a little better than it had
been in the South.
especially, was lucky. He entered a school where one white teacher, Charles
Riley, took a special interest in him. Jesse looked thin and unhealthy, and
Riley wanted to make him stronger. Through the years that Jesse was in school,
Riley brought him food in the morning.
Riley often invited the boy to eat with his family in the evening. And
every day before school, he taught Owens how to run like an athlete.
first, the idea was only to make the boy stronger. But soon Riley saw that Jesse
was a champion. By the time Jesse had completed high school, his name was known
across the nation. Ohio State University wanted him to attend college
there. While at Ohio State, he set new
world records in several track and field events. And he was accepted as a
member of the United States Olympic team.
always remembered the white man who helped change his life. Charles Riley did
not seem to care what color a person's skin was. Owens learned to think the same
in life, Owens put all his energy into working with young people. He wanted to
tell them some of the things he had
about life, work and success: That it is important to choose a goal and always
work toward it. That there are good people in the world who will help you to
reach your goal. That if you try again and again, you will succeed.
who heard Owens's speeches said he spoke almost as well as he ran. Owens
received awards for his work with boys and girls. The United States government
sent him around the world as a kind of sports ambassador. The International
Olympic Committee asked for his advice.
about nineteen seventy, Jesse Owens wrote a book in which he told about his
life. It was called "Blackthink." In the book, Owens denounced young black
militants who blamed society for their troubles. He said young black people had
the same chance to succeed in the United States as white people. Many black
civil rights activists reacted angrily to these statements. They said what Owens had written was not true
later admitted that he had been wrong. He saw that not all blacks were given
the same chances and help that he had been given. In a second book, Owens tried to explain what
he had meant in his first book. He
called it "I Have Changed." Owens said
that, in his earlier book, he did not write about life as it was for everyone,
but about life as it was for him.
said he truly wanted to believe that if you think you can succeed--- and you
really try -- then you have a chance. If you do not think you have a chance,
then you probably will fail. He said these beliefs had worked for him. And he
wanted all young people to believe them, too.
were the same beliefs he tried to express when he spoke around the world about
being an Olympic athlete. "The road to the Olympics," he said,
"leads to no city, no country. It goes far beyond New York or Moscow,
ancient Greece or Nazi Germany. The road to the Olympics leads -- in the end --
to the best within us."
nineteen seventy-six, President Gerald Ford awarded Jesse Owens the Medal of
Freedom. This is the highest honor an
American civilian can receive. Jesse Owens
died of cancer in nineteen eighty. His
family members operate the Jesse Owens Foundation. It provides financial aid and support for
young people to help them reach their goals in life.
program was written by Barbara Dash. It
was produced by Lawan Davis. This is
this is Gwen Outen. Listen again next week for People in America in VOA Special