10 Amazing Facts about Jesse Owens


*Originally published by Cyndi K on March 2022 and Updated by Vanessa R on May 2023

Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens Card- Author; Unknown author- Wikimedia

Jesse Owens, full name James Cleveland Owens was born on September 12th, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama. He was an American track and field athlete who set a world record in the high jump. The name “Jesse” stuck after a teacher mispronounced the name he gave, “JC.”

He was well known for his extreme talent in athletics. He passed on March 31st, 1980 at the age of 66 due to lung cancer.

1. Jesse Owens First became a National sensation while in Highschool

Owens came to national attention when he was a high school student in Cleaveland. At the 1933 National high school championship in Chicago, he equalled the world record at the time of 9.4 seconds in the 100 yards (99 meters) dash and long jumped 24 feet, 9.5 inches.

2. He set a record in the long jump

Owens doing a jump-Author, National Archives- Wikimedia

Jesse Owens set a world record in the long jump that stood for 25 years straight without being broken. In 1935, the year before the Berlin Olympics, he gave a leap of 8.13 meters (26 feet, 8 inches).

This record was broken 25 years later in 1960 Ralph Boston. This was in Ann Arbor City in Michigan at the Big Ten track meet.

He was able two set three world records all in less than an hour and thus ended up being termed as “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sports.”

3. Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals in the 1936 Olympics

Owens- 1936

Jesse Owens during the 1936 Berlin Olympics- Author; Le Miroir des sports- Wikimedia

Jesse achieved international fame in 1936 at the Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany by winning 4 gold medals. These were in: 100 meters, long jump, 200 meters, and 4 x 100-meter relay. He became the most successful athlete in those games.

4.  He was ranked 6th greatest North American Athlete of the 20th century

Owens ready to sprint-Author; Associated Press- Wikimedia

Owens was ranked as the 6th greatest North American athlete of the 20th century by ESPN. He was the highest-ranked in this sport. In 1999, he was listed on the six-man shortlist for the BBC sports personality of the century.

5. Was the first black man to be captain of an Ohio State Varsity team

The old armory

Ohio State University in 1899- Author; Ohio State University-Wikimedia

After becoming a track and field star at a Cleveland high school, Owens enrolled at the Ohio State University.

Because of always breaking records and setting bars high for the Ohio State University Buckeyes track team, Owens came to be known as the “Buckeye Bullet.”

Consequently, he was elected captain of the Ohio State varsity team. He became the first black man to have that position.

He was however barred from living in an on-campus dorm due to him being black.

6. Jesse Owens was persuaded by the Adidas shoe founder to wear handmade shoes

Owens, 1936

Jesse Owens in 1936 Olympics with the pair of shoes given by Adi Dassler- Wikimedia

In 1936, just before the competitions, the founder of Adidas athletic shoes, Adi Dassler, visited Owens and persuaded him to wear his personally handcrafted leather track shoes.

It was a unique pair of shoes as it was a handcrafted leather shoe with extra-long spikes. This was the first sponsorship seen that included an African American athlete.

Owen’s triumph played a role in helping launch his business. A decade later, Dassler started his own company, Adidas.

7. Awarded the congressional gold medal

Congressional gold medal- Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens Congressional Gold Medal- Author; US Mint- Wikimedia

In 1990, Jesse Owens was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George H. W. Bush.

This was to honour his success in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and to acknowledge the fact that at the time, racial discrimination was at its peak and thus he didn’t get the recognition he deserved

8. Jesse Owens formed an all-black baseball league

In 1946, Jesse Owens joined Abe Saperstein in forming a baseball league by the name of, the West Coast Negro Baseball League (WCNBA).

It was also a new negro baseball league. At the time, these were America’s professional baseball leagues comprising of African Americans and to a small extent, Latin Americans.

At a time when racial discrimination was too much, the league gave members of the minority an opportunity to also participate in sports.

Owens became the vice president of WCNBA and the owner of the Portland Rosebuds. They were a baseball league and Owens toured with them.

Sometimes, they would entertain the audience in between the game, by competing in races against horses. WCNBA was however disbanded after only 2 months.

9. Was enlisted as a goodwill ambassador

In 1955, Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower enlisted Owens as a goodwill ambassador.

Due to this, he was sent to India and the Philippines to promote physical exercise and amateur sports as well as advocate for the cause of American freedom and economic opportunity in the developing world.

He continued his goodwill tours in the 1960s and 1970s.

10. Was Awarded the medal of freedom

Owens in 1976

Jesse Owens during the 1976 Ceremony- Author; Unknown- Wikimedia

In 1976, Owens received national recognition for his achievements. President Gerald Ford awarded him with the medal of freedom which is the highest civilian honour a president can bestow.

This was during a ceremony held in August 1976 and was attended by the 1976 U.S Summer Olympic team.


American track star Jesse Owens shakes hands with Italian competitor Ercola Gallegati at the Olympic Village in Berlin, 1936. (AP Photo)- Wikimedia

Jesse Owens did his country proud during the 1936 Berlin Olympics and is still celebrated today.

3 Little Known Facts about Jesse Owens

1.He felt ignored by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and not by Hitler

A rumour that Hitler was offended by Owens’ victory and refused to congratulate him or shake his hand spread quickly after the Berlin Games. The Olympic champion received a “nice little Nazi salute” from the German leader, according to a reporter covering the Games. According to Owens, they waved each other congratulations. He went on to say that the actual offence had been caused by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had refused to invite any Olympic athletes to the White House after the Games.

2. He performed degrading stunt races to make ends meet

The Olympic champion returned to Jim Crow America and discovered his options for a career were restricted despite his global fame following the Berlin Games. For financial gain, Owens started competing in stunt races. In Cuba, he had to compete with dogs, trains, cars, motorcycles, and even a racehorse.

3. Every day, Owens smoked one pack of cigarettes

Unexpectedly, the professional athlete had smoked for years. He smoked while appearing on All-American News in the 1950s, the first newsreel programme made for African viewers. At the conclusion of a segment on Black athletes, Owens lit a cigarette for himself and another for the host, businessman and writer Claude Barnett. Owens was smoking Chesterfields, which he was advertising. Owens passed away from lung cancer on March 31, 1980,