Jesse Owens' Olympic Gold Medal
Answer to Name This Famous Antique Game - October 2016
By Mike McLeod

This is one of the four gold medals Jesse Owens won at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. In 2013, it sold for $1,466,574 at SCP Auctions. It is not known for which event it was awarded of the four he won: 100 meters, 200 meters, 4x100 meter relay and long jump.

Jesse Owens’ Olympic gold medal that sold for $1.47 million. (Photo courtesy of SCP Auctions)

In 1976, President Gerald Ford awarded Jesse Owens the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Jimmy Carter honored him with a Living Legend award in 1979, and in 1990, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George H.W. Bush. Jesse Owens passed away on March 31, 1980 of lung cancer. He smoked a pack of cigarettes every day for more than three decades.

“Jesse” was not the birth name of James Cleveland Owens. The last of ten children born to Henry Cleveland Owens and Mary Emma Fitzgerald in Oakville, Ala., on Sept. 12, 1913, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when Jesse was nine. Called “J.C.” by his family, his Ohio teacher misunderstood his Alabama-accented pronunciation of it so she called him “Jesse.”1 From then on, James was known as Jesse, and that name is carved on his headstone.

Jesse Owens, 1936

Even though Jesse had poor health as a young child, in junior high school he excelled in gym class, and his gym teacher guided him to the track team. At East Technical High School, Jesse matched the world record for the 100 yard dash with a time of 9.4 seconds. This caught the attention of many colleges who made offers to him, but Jesse chose Ohio State, even though it had no scholarships for track. Jesse worked his way through college at various low-paying jobs and supported his wife Ruth and his daughter Gloria.

“One chance is all you need.”

Of all the many awards and sports achievements Jesse Owens earned, two top the list. In May of 1935, he broke three world records and tied a fourth—all within 45 minutes—at a Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Mich. He broke the world running long jump record with a leap of 26 ft. 8.25 inches, the 220-yard sprint with a time of 20.3 seconds, and the 220-yard low hurdles in 22.6 seconds. He tied the 100-yard dash record with a time of 9.4 seconds. All of this was accomplished while he was recovering from a back injury.

“A lifetime of training for just ten seconds.”

His other greatest achievement was winning four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin in front of Adolf Hitler. (Only two others have won four gold medals in track and field: Carl Lewis and Alvin Kraenzlein.2)

Amid “Heil Hitler” salutes, Jesse Owens stands tall on top of the podium in the Berlin Olympics after winning the long jump. (Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630)

Much has been made of Hitler’s refusal to shake Owens’ hand, but in fact, they did shake hands, although briefly. It was witnessed by Eric Brown, Britain’s famous WWII pilot, the first to land a plane on a ship3 and by a German sports reporter.4 Hitler left the stadium after Owens’ first victory and shook hands with no Olympians. True, Hitler planned to show Aryan superiority at the Games, and Jesse did much to disprove that; however, Germany won the most medals, besting the second-place U.S. by 33 medals. The tally went this way5:

 

Gold

Silver

Bronze

Total

Germany

33

26

30

89

USA

24

20

12

56

Maybe Hitler had the last laugh at the end of the Olympics after all.

Jesse later said of this, “Hitler didn't snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram.”6 Owens was finally invited to the White House by President Gerald Ford in 1976 to award him the Medal of Freedom.

“The battles that count aren't the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself—the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us—that's where it's at.”

For much of his life, Jesse Owens reached out to underprivileged kids and motivated them to do their best. His legacy lives on in the Jesse Owens International Trophy, the highest award in track and field, which is given to the athlete who exemplifies the characteristics of its namesake. (In 2002, it was renamed the American-International Athlete Trophy.) Also, the Jesse Owens Foundation (www.jesse-owens.org) provides educational scholarships to underprivileged youths as an ongoing memorial to Jesse and Ruth Owens and to prove, as Jesse liked to say,

“There is no such thing as an average kid.”

Jesse Owens’ medal was correctly identified by Ted Carlton of Utah and Sherron Lawson of Roswell, Ga.

---------------------------

1 Jesse-owens.org
2 Alvin Kraenzlein won his four gold at the 1900 Paris Olympic Games for the long jump, 110 meter hurdles, 60 meter hurdles and 220 meter hurdles (the last two since discontinued); britannica.com.
3 Mirror.co.uk, “War hero who came face-to-face with Churchill, Himmler and Goering to meet the Queen,” by Emily Retter, June 25, 2015.
4 Dailymail.co.uk, “Did Hitler shake hands with black 1936 Olympic hero Jesse Owens?” by Allan Hall Aug.11, 2009.
5 Topendsports.com, “1936 Berlin Medal Tally.”
6 St. Joseph News-Press, “Snub from Roosevelt,” Oct 16, 1936.
Credits: Brainyquote.com, Wikipedia.org.


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