Volume 93, Issue 5
Friday, June 11, 1999
At a time when Major League Baseball and the National Football League were still played exclusively by white people, a battle against racism was being fought on the track by a 5 foot 10-inch, 165-pound black man.
James Cleveland Owens, known to his family as J.C., was born in poverty to the son of a cotton picker and grandson of slaves on September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama.
Trying to improve their lives, J.C.'s family moved North in the early 1920s. His first teacher in Ohio had mistaken J.C.'s slow, southern drawl for "Jesse" and being too modest to say otherwise, Owens' nickname stuck.
Owen's greatness was first brought to the world's attention on May 25, 1935, at the Big Ten conference championships held in Ann Arbour, Michigan. In what was called "the most superlative feat ever accomplished in the history of track and field," Owens set four world records in less than 45 minutes.
First, Owens ran the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds. Then 10 minutes later, he long jumped 26 feet, 8 1/4 inches. After just a nine minute rest, he finished the 220-yard dash in 20.3 seconds, then capped off his brilliant day by clearing the previous 220-yard hurdle world record with a time of 22.6 seconds.
It was just a hint of what was to come. "The Ebony Express" sped into Berlin, Germany for the 1936 Olympics, taunted by Adolf Hitler's incessant claims to Aryan racial superiority. The Nazi Fuhrer announced publicly his white Aryan athletes would easily beat blacks such as Owens. The battle lines were drawn and the world watched breathlessly to see who would win this war.
On August 3, Owens cruised to his first gold medal in 10.3 seconds, also capturing a world record. The next day, he leapt 26 feet, 5-5/16 inches in the long jump to secure a second gold medal and world record.
Two days later, Owens rocketed to the 200-metre finish line in 20.7 seconds, winning his third gold medal and setting yet another best time. Owens' fourth gold medal was awarded for the United States' 400-metre relay victory.
Despite his incredible accomplishments, Owens is best remembered not as an amazing athlete who broke records, but as a gentleman who broke colour barriers and served as a positive, inspirational role model for people of all races.
Copyright © The Gazette 1999