Olympic Legends: Jesse Owens – The First Superstar

Jesse Owens' haul of four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Games has often been portrayed as a big boost to the fight against racism as they took place under the close scrutiny of Adolf Hitler.

Jessie Owens powers his way to victory in the 200m at the 1936 Olympics Games in Berlin   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Let us begin with how James Cleveland Owens came to be known as “Jesse,” a name that was to become known the world over as the American charted new territory of his own, translating the immense talent in him and emerged as not only the hero of Berlin 1936, but also the first sporting superstar. Jesse was known to family and friends affectionately as “JC.” Once when he was asked for his name, JC replied in his southern drawl. He was heard as Jesse, and JC stuck with his new name from that day.

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This, we are told, happened when he was only nine, shortly after his family made the move from Alabama to Cleveland to overcome the struggles of everyday life. Owens was already a workhorse of the poor family, picking 100 pounds of cotton every other day to help his mother put food on the table, despite the fact that he was a frail child who was often sick, battling chronic bronchial congestion.

The shift to Cleveland was a godsend for Owens, as he was able to attend a better school, which opened up to him a chance to try his luck in athletics. But given the social conditions of the time and the lack of regular competition across all levels, it was a tough ride to the top for the American who at his prime held or shared the world records in all sprint events recognised by the IAAF, then known as International Amateur Athletics Federation. In the long jump, his record was to stand in his own name for close to a quarter century.

True, the string of scintillating performances that Owens dished out in Berlin leading to an unprecedented four gold medals has often been portrayed as a big boost to the fight against racism as they took place under the close scrutiny of the German fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, an advocate of so-called Aryan supremacy. It is often said that Hitler flatly refused to meet with Owens and congratulate him, but this seems to be a far-fetched theory as records reveal that the International Olympic Committee had strongly recommended to the chancellor that he either congratulate all the winners or none at all.

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But, for all the acclaim in the media, Owens was never met by his own country’s president, and he was given only a backdoor entry to the bus that brought in all the winners. Later, as he gave up his amateur status, he was left to race against horses and cars to eke out a living. But true champions never say die and Owens found his calling in public relations, setting up business in Chicago.

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