By Kelvin Muhia
For many athletes today, breaking a world record would be a lifetime accomplishment. On May 25, 1935, James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was the first black American athlete to tear the record book apart through breaking three world records and tying a fourth in just 45 minutes.
Born on September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, Jesse was often ill as a child, suffering from pneumonia and chronic bronchial congestion. At the age of seven, his family moved to Cleveland where Jesse received his formal education. When asked his name by the class teacher, Jesse replied “J.C.,” a short form for James Cleveland. The teacher misunderstood the name and instead called him “Jesse.” From then on, he was known as Jesse Owens.
As an athletic teenager, Owens specialized in sprints and long jump, and was among the best students in the 100- and 220-yard dashes. At Ohio State University, Jesse was not the best student in class, but was the swiftest when it came to achievement on the track. Two weeks before the 1935 Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the young black American athlete slipped on water when playing with his roommates, severely injuring his tail bone.
On May 25, 1935, despite suffering severe pain in his back, Owens stated that the pain miraculously disappeared immediately as he prepared for the competition.
The start bullet ran at 3:15 pm for the 100-yard dash. Owens ran with a tremendous acceleration, and matched the world record with an official time of 9.4 seconds. At 3:25 pm, Owens again broke the world record in the long jump by leaping 26 ft 8¼ inches, a record that lasted for 25 years. At 3:34 pm, Owens again broke the world record in the 220-yard sprint with a time record of 20.3 seconds. At 4:00 pm, Owens broke the 220-yard low hurdles running at a record time 22.6 seconds. In all the 42 events Owens competed in at Ohio State, he managed to win in all.
One year later in 1936, Owens shook the nerves of Adolf Hitler through recording an impressive performance during the Berlin Winter Olympics. The Nazis saw African Americans as inferior and also ridiculed America for allowing “non humans”—as stated by one German official—to compete in the Olympics. The entire stadium cheering for Owens, the young Black American son of a sharecropper, silenced Adolf Hitler at the Olympic Stadium by winning four gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, the long jump and the 4×100 relay. Owens was credited for “single-handedly crush[ing] Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.”
Although he was never invited to shake hands with Adolf Hitler nor the president of the United States, Owens stated that he never complained. He was focused on performing to the best of his abilities and making things better for Black Americans everywhere.