All About the Olympic Athlete Jesse Owens – 13 Interesting Facts

Olympic Athlete Jesse Owens

You probably heard of the black athlete who shattered Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan Supremacy; Jesse Owens. He was able to gain the respect of millions of people just by his sheer excellent performance and sportsmanship.

Yet, there’s probably a lot more you still don’t know about J.C Owens, like his rough childhood. Or how he made a living off of racing horses after the smashing success at the Berlin Olympic games.

In this post, we dive deeper into the highlights of his life as a track and field athlete. Let’s jump right in!

Who Was Jesse “The Buckeye Bullet” Owens?

The Olympic Athlete Jesse Owens was born “James Cleveland Owens” in 1913 in Oakville to Henry and Emma Owens. They later moved to Ohio State when young James was only nine years old.

In high school, it wouldn’t take long for Charles Riley, the school coach, to discover Owens’ talents. At 15 years old, Owens could run the 100-yard dash in only 11 seconds!

Soon, Owens started competing in state interscholastic and national championships. By 1933, he enrolled at Ohio State University, where he would meet his future wife, Minnie Ruth Solomon.

After setting several world records during his college days, Owens became known as “The Buckeye Bullet.” That’s how fast people found him to be.

Berlin Olympics

Berlin Olympics 1936

Setting all those accomplishments aside, Jesse Owens’ real journey to fame began when he joined the tryouts for the Olympic Games.

One month after his New York tryouts, Jesse represented the United States in the 1936 Games. Let’s just clarify that these Olympics were being held in Nazi Germany.

However, that didn’t slow him down. In fact, it did just the opposite: Owens managed to set a world record for the 220-yard dash in only 20.7 seconds. By the end of the Olympics, he had earned himself four gold medals!


Jesse Owens received many awards both during his life and after he passed away. Here are some of his most significant honors:

  • The Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford
  • An Honorary Doctorate from Ohio State University
  • Living Legend Award by President Jimmy Carter
  • Congressional Gold Medal by President George Bush

13 Interesting Facts About Olympic Athlete Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens : Olympic Athlete Jesse Owens

For 66 long years, Jesse Owens lived a full life. Yet, his performance at the Berlin Olympic Games remains the highlight of his career.

Nevertheless, being a great athlete with four Olympic medals wasn’t even the most interesting thing about him. There’s just so much more to admire about Owens as a man, first, and an athlete second.

Here are some share-worthy facts about the great Jesse Owens:

1. Owens Was Often Ill as a Child

Owens grew up in a poor household to a family of former slaves. Thus, he had to overcome a long series of hardships, one of which was his health conditions.

When he was only five years old, Jesse Owens suffered from a bulging fibrous tumor near his lung.

Unfortunately, his parents couldn’t afford medical interventions. Owens said his mother had to deal with the bump herself with a kitchen knife.

Regardless of how accurate Owens’ recollection was at this tender age, he survived his illness to grow into the athlete we came to know and admire.

2. Owens’ Name Sprouted from a Misunderstanding

So, we’ve covered the fact that the Olympic champion was born James Cleveland Owens. Where did “Jesse” come from?

It wasn’t his original nickname choice. As a boy, Owens went by J.C, which was short for James Cleveland.  Then, when he moved to Ohio, people misheard J.C for Jesse somewhere along the way, and it just caught on.

3. Owens Overcame a Tailbone Injury Just in Time

In 1935, Owens suffered a painful tailbone injury when a college dorm prank went wrong.

The problem was that the Big Ten Champions were set for the following week at Ann Arbor. This race was a major sports event that would propel athletes to the upcoming Olympics.

Somehow, when the time came, Owens pushed through the pain. Being the determined man he was, he didn’t only win the race; he managed to set a world record of a 26 feet and 8.25 inches long jump.

Imagine competing in a major athletic event and breaking a world record only days after an injury like that!

4. It Took 25 Years for Anyone to Break Owens’ Record

Jesse Owens’ performance at the Big Ten Champions was so astonishing that his world record remained intact for more than 25 years!

For reference, Jesse’s long jump leap was 26 feet and 8.25 inches.

A quarter of a century later, the American athlete Bob Beamon managed to break this record. Beamon graced his way at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics with a 29.1-foot jump.

Today, another American Olympic medalist, Mike Powel, holds the record at 29.3 feet.

It’s fair to say that Owens paved the way for a generation of great athletes!

5. Jesse Owens Helped Promote Adidas

It’s not uncommon to see famous Olympic athletes as ambassadors for sports-wear companies today.

However, at the start of the 20th century, it hadn’t been done before. So, when Adi Dassler, the company’s founder, approached the American long jump competitor with his spiked shoe to wear to the Olympics, they were in uncharted territory.

As luck would have it, Jesse Owens did wear the Adidas shoes to the Games where he managed to score not one, but four, gold medals! That skyrocketed Owens’ name to stardom, taking Adidas along with it.

6. Owens Captured the Hearts at the Berlin Olympics

You might think that the German audience watching the 1936 Summer Olympics would have hated to see their competitors lose medals to Owens. Yet, somehow, that wasn’t true.

Jesse Owens managed to gain the admiration and respect of the Germans. According to Willian J. Baker, Owens even received unexpected support from the audience at the stadium.

Fans gathered around the Olympic Champion to congratulate him and ask for autographs. This admiration shows how sport can transcend borders!

7. Even the Olympic Competitors Liked Owens

Although they were competing against each other, a German long jumper at the Berlin Olympics helped Owens with technical advice.

Facing a great deal of pressure and anxiety, Owens was flustering. He was having trouble setting his marks and had had a couple of failed attempts early in the game.

So, when Carl Luz Long, a German long jumper, noticed the discouraging dash runs by Owens, he approached him with a piece of advice on the best technique to set the mark on his next attempt.

By the end of the Games, Owens had won the gold medal while Long had earned the silver.

By coming to the aid of a fellow athlete, Long showed great sportsmanship that both families are still celebrating.

8. Owens Raced Against Cars and Horses

Owens’ success at the 1936 Olympics didn’t seem fruitful once he returned to the United States.

He had to make ends meet with odd jobs like being a lift operator and working in a gas station during the summer. At one time, he was even racing against cars and horses.

To make matters worse, he was banned from competing in the Olympics. Just four months after he came home from Germany, the Olympic Committee decided he was no longer an amateur competitor.

It might be hard to imagine, but Jesse Owens had to file for bankruptcy only three years after the Berlin Olympics.

9. Owens Started a Public Relations Agency In Chicago

When Jesse Owens found his hidden talent as an orator, things started looking up for him. Owens went on tours giving speeches about the challenges that faced him in sports as a black man.

This turn-up was a nice change after the rough patch he’d just gone through. It could be that his previous experience in public relations at Ford Motor Co. helped pave the way for this career transition.

Soon after that, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of freedom. Moreover, he was named Ambassador of Sports by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

10. Owen’s Daughter Was the First African American Homecoming Queen

Marlene Owens, Jesse’s daughter, was crowned homecoming queen at the Ohio State University.

Today, being a homecoming queen might not seem like a big deal. However, this was 1961. Back then, a black homecoming queen was anything but ordinary.

Just like her father had broken world records, Marlene Owens did the same. She became the first black homecoming queen in American history!

It looks like the Owens had set out to challenge prejudices, and at the same university nonetheless!

11. Smoking Caught Up With Owens at the End

Jesse Owens was a heavy smoker for almost half his life. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 1979.

Despite his athletic history, Owens’ condition deteriorated quickly, and he passed the following year at the age of 66.

Owens’ battle with lung cancer inspired several anti-smoking campaigns and charities. One of the prominent awareness campaigns targeting smoking and lung cancer was a collaboration between the Lung Cancer Research Foundation (LCRF) and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

12. Ruth Owens Managed the Jesse Owens Foundation

After his untimely death, the Owens family wanted to start something that would honor his life and dedication to sports.

In 1980, the Jesse Owens Foundation was established as a charity organization that helps youth achieve their goals in life.

Minnie Ruth Owens, Jesse’s widow, sat as a board member. She helped manage the foundation for a long time until she passed away in 2001.

Like the US Track and Field Foundation, other organizations have also dedicated programs in Owens’ name to commemorate his legacy and inspire future generations.

13. Owens’ Legacy Is Still Standing Strong

Even after his death, the name “Jesse Owens” is still associated with sports excellence and community outreach.

He has a Memorial Park and Museum in Alabama with an Olympic statue in his honor.

Even more impressive is that his legacy has left its mark on the streets of Berlin, quite literally it seems. “Jesse Owens” is now the name of an avenue leading to the same stadium where Owens scored four gold medals.

Not only that, there’s a junior school in Lichtenberg named after him as well.

The legend of Owens isn’t even limited to sports. Did you know that there’s an asteroid named after Jesse Owens?

Final Thoughts On The Famous Olympic Athlete Jesse Owens

The world may have lost one of its greatest athletes when Jesse Owens died. However, he will forever be remembered for the values and ethics he represented.

In more ways than one, Owens managed to change the world, not just the athletic history of the United States.

Thankfully, it’s evident that people will keep athletes with great sportsmanship, like Jesse Owens, in their memory for a long time to come!