Ohio State track athletes have made a rich contribution to the success of the U.S. Olympic teams over the years, but one man has made his impact not only on Olympic competition, but on history itself. That man was Jesse Owens.
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin were perhaps the most famous ever staged. The apparent cordiality of the German hosts acted as a dark and deceptive backdrop to the tension and conflict that dominated the troubled scene. And it was in this setting that one athlete rose above it all with his warmth, compassion and humility.
Owens’ inhuman performance helped to shatter Adolf Hitler’s theory of Aryan supremacy right before the young leader’s eyes. Owens won four gold medals during the competition in the 100 and 200m dashes, the broad jump and as an anchor for the victorious 4 x 100m relay team. Even though he competed a half-century ago, no track athlete has made more of a contribution to his sport and to his country than has Jesse Owens. His name has become synonymous with excellence in track and field.
It was at Ohio State that he perfected the track skills that would make him a legend. Thus, it is only fitting that when the OSU athletic officials decided to host a top quality invitational meet, it would be named the Jesse Owens Classic.
Much has been written and spoken about Owens. He was introduced to track in junior high school and immediately began to make a reputation for himself, setting world records in the 220-yard dash and broad jump, along with tying the existing record in the 100-yard dash. In 1936, his junior year at Ohio State, Owens was clearly the top track and field athlete on the globe. Record crowds turned out wherever he performed. He competed in 42 events and won them all. He won four events in the Big Ten, four in the NCAA, two in the NAAU and three in the Olympic Trials, all prior to his stellar performance at the Berlin Games.
In 1955, Owens was named a United States Ambassador of Sport by the State Department. He toured the world meeting with government officials on behalf of amateur sports programs and youth recreation. He was President Eisenhower’s special representative to the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia.
An honor that carried special meaning for Owens came in 1972 when Ohio State conferred on him an honorary Doctorate of Athletic Arts degree. His commitment to OSU made the honor that much more meaningful for him.
In 1976, in an emotional ceremony, President Gerald Ford bestowed upon Owens the Medal Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He gratefully accepted the award in front of the 250 members of the 1976 Olympic Team, along with several national and international dignitaries. In making the presentation, President Ford stated, “Jesse, your character and your achievement will always be a source of inspiration.”
Owens continued to serve amateur sports and the youth of the world until his death on March 31, 1980. His accomplishments in track, his sincere patriotism and his humanitarianism were honored by President Bush a decade later when he posthumously awarded Owens with the Congressional Medal of Honor. Bush called his victories in Berlin “an unrivaled athletic triumph, but more than that, a triumph for all of humanity.”
From the lips of presidents and the children that he touched during his lifetime, Jesse Owens, in this the 81st year since his birth, was a champion in every sense of the word.