Several books and movies have told the story of Jesse Owens, so tackling this larger-than-life personality is no easy task. Jeremy Schaap, who also wrote Cinderella Man, was up to the task when he wrote Triumph. Schaap manages to cover all of Owens’ important life moments while also really going into detail about the racial tensions in the United States and the broader political and military tensions brewing globally in the 1930s.
The story of Owens starts with his upbringing and both his parents’ wish for him to have a better life than they did. Upward mobility for African Americans in the first half of the 20th century was not easy, but Owens’ opportunity came when he ran a near world-class time in the 100-yard run during gym class without any track gear. Charles Riley, the physical education teacher, and coach who witnessed Owens’ run, first thought the stopwatch was broken! The watch was not broken, and Riley quickly decided he needed to nurture Owens’ sprinting talent. By the time Owens graduated from high school, he had made a name for himself as a sprinter and long jumper and earned a spot at the Ohio State University (OSU).
Once at OSU, Owens became known as the “Buckeye Bullet” and worked with Coach Larry Snyder. The tale of Jesse Owens at OSU is largely a tale of two people. The first portion of the tale is Jesse Owens as an athlete. As an athlete, Owens saw a lot of success and made a name for himself on the world stage. Jesse Owens the athlete became the person who would represent the United States at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, and who Hitler and the Nazi party saw as a nuisance to their propaganda machine concerning where people of color fit into society and athletics. The second portion of Jesse Owens’ tale is Owens as a person. Owens was an African American man trying to find himself in a country that greatly appreciated his athletic talents but still did not consider him an equal in many regards. Owens lived off-campus while at OSU not by choice, but because African Americans were not allowed to live on campus. Although Owens provided a lot of positive attention to the university and athletic program, Owens was not eligible for any scholarships. Owens was a world-class athlete who had to work part-time jobs to pay for tuition and room and board. Added into the mix, Owens married his high school sweetheart in 1935 and was dealing with relationship strains related to the attention he was receiving from women due to his athletic frame, so there was a lot of pressure on someone who was in their early twenties.
In May of 1935, Owens accomplished what many consider to be one of the greatest athletic feats achieved in track and field. In a 45-minute span, Owens equaled the 100-yard dash world record (9.4 seconds) and set world records in the long jump (26 feet 8.25 inches), 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds), and the 220-yard hurdles (22.6 seconds). This success began what would be a year-long buildup to the 1936 Olympics. Although Owens ultimately competed, at the time there was a great deal of speculation regarding whether Owens would participate or not. Many were concerned for Owens’ safety and many also wanted Owens to compete and beat the German athletes in their home country. Once the Olympic Games started, Owens was unstoppable, going on to win gold medals in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, long jump, and 4x100-meter relay. The games were not without their own drama. Many news outlets insisted that Owens was purposefully snubbed by Hitler after winning his events. According to Owens, however, Hitler gave him a salute for his 100-meter victory as he left the stadium due to time constraints. Regardless of the snub, the presence of Owens did seem to cause internal consternation for Hitler and his officials at the games.
Owens is a shining example of the human spirit, and unfortunately an example of a person just as much shaped by his times as he was of shaping the world around him. During the four years Owens attended OSU, he won eight individual NCAA Championships (four each in 1935 and 1936 — a single-year feat that was only equaled in 2006 by Xavier Carter and included relays), set 4 world records in a span of 45 minutes during one meeting, won 4 gold medals at the Olympics, and served as the face of the United States at those 1936 Olympic Games in front of a powerful dictator leading a powerful regime. Owens was also a person who returned home and ended up feeling disrespected by the president of the United States because he was not invited to the White House after performing to the best of his abilities despite being caught up in the political mess attached to the games. Owens also did not return home to lucrative job offers and sponsorships like those someone now receives for being “the fastest man in the world.” The story of Jesse Owens is a complex one and Triumph does a great job of telling his story.
This article was originally written for and published for the HMRRC’s Monthly Publication — The Pacesetter for February 2021 https://hmrrc.com/members/pacesetter/2021/february/triumph-untold-story-jesse-owens-and-hitlers-olympics