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Jesse Owens, 1913- 1980: He Was Once the Fastest Runner in the World

Jesse Owens competes in one of the heats of the 200-meter run at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Jesse Owens competes in one of the heats of the 200-meter run at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

GWEN OUTEN: This is Gwen Outen.

STEVE EMBER: 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 the story of athlete Jesse Owens. He once was the fastest runner in the world.


GWEN OUTEN: In 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.

Adolf 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.

In 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.

Jesse Owens's Olympic victories made him a hero
Jesse Owens's Olympic victories made him a hero

STEVE EMBER: Jesse 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.

JESSE OWENS: “I think that this week is very sufficient for the boys on the United States Olympic team for the simple reason because we have been through a series of preliminary events in our country. And the training here that we are getting here is just a little tune-up for the Olympic games. Our hard training is really over. And the rain here is something that is going to help our team quite a bit because some of the boys has a tendency to work a little bit too hard. And I think that the rain is doing a good to slack up the training a bit.”

(1936 interview with Jesse Owens for German radio, from

STEVE EMBER: Owens 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.

Owens 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."

GWEN OUTEN: We 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.

The 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.

Jesse 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.

Jesse Owens, center, salutes during the presentation of his gold medal for the long jump, after defeating Nazi Germany's Lutz Long, right, during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Naoto Tajima of Japan, left, placed third.
Jesse Owens, center, salutes during the presentation of his gold medal for the long jump, after defeating Nazi Germany's Lutz Long, right, during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Naoto Tajima of Japan, left, placed third.

STEVE EMBER: Owens's 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.

For 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.


GWEN OUTEN: 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.

Some 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 look at.

Jesse’s 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.

STEVE EMBER: Jesse, 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.

At 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.


Jesse Owens was one of the world's greatest track and field athletes
Jesse Owens was one of the world's greatest track and field athletes

GWEN OUTEN: Owens 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 way.

Later in life, Owens put all his energy into working with young people. He wanted to tell them some of the things he had learned 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.

People 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.


STEVE EMBER: In 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 for everyone.

Owens 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.

He 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.

GWEN OUTEN: These 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.”

In 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.


STEVE EMBER: This program was written by Barbara Dash. It was produced by Lawan Davis. This is Steve Ember.

GWEN OUTEN: And this is Gwen Outen. Listen again next week for People in America in VOA Special English.