12 Fascinating Facts About Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens (right) smokes competitors in the 200-meter sprint at the Berlin Summer Games, setting a new Olympic record.
Jesse Owens (right) smokes competitors in the 200-meter sprint at the Berlin Summer Games, setting a new Olympic record. / Austrian Archives/Imagno/Getty Images

A gifted sprinter, relay racer, and long jumper, Jesse Owens is best known for winning four gold medals in track and field events in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. In a city draped in Nazi banners, Owens’s triumph defied racist ideology and inspired generations of athletes. Here are 12 fascinating facts about the groundbreaking Olympian.

1. His real first name wasn’t Jesse.

The future track star, born James Cleveland Owens on September 12, 1913, was nicknamed “J.C.” by his family. After moving from his native Alabama to Ohio at age 9, J.C. told his new teacher his name on the first day of school. But the teacher misunderstood his Southern accent and thought he said “Jesse” instead of his initials. Owens was too shy to correct her and went by Jesse from then on.

2. He survived DIY surgery with a kitchen knife.

Owens developed a benign yet painful tumor on his chest when he was 5 years old. His parents could not afford a doctor, so his mother played the role of a surgeon. Owens laid on the family’s kitchen table and bit down on a leather strap while his mother excised the golf ball-sized growth with a sterilized knife. He lost a significant amount of blood—but lived to tell the tale.

3. Jesse Owens set three world records—and tied a fourth—in college.

Jesse Owens at the Summer Olympics 1936
Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. / United Archives/GettyImages

After emerging as a track star in high school, Owens enrolled at The Ohio State University in 1933, where he shattered records for the track team and earned the nickname “Buckeye Bullet.” He became the first Black student to be elected captain of an Ohio State varsity sports team, but even then, he was barred from the on-campus dorm because of its segregationist policy.

At the 1935 Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Owens achieved what the four-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson called “one of the most amazing feats in any sport.” Owens broke three world records and tied another in less than an hour—and did so with a serious back injury. First, he tied the world record in the 100-yard dash at 9.4 seconds. Ten minutes later, he beat the world long jump record by almost six inches, coming in at 8.13 meters (almost as long as a London double-decker bus). Within the next half-hour, he set new world records in the 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds) and the 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds).

4. He won four gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany.

At the 1936 Games in Berlin, Adolf Hitler hoped to showcase Aryan superiority and militarism on the world stage. But the biggest impact was made by Owens in one of the greatest performances in Olympic history. He won four track and field events: the 100-meter sprint, the long jump, the 200-meter sprint, and the 4 x 100-meter relay. His victories thwarted Hitler’s propagandist aims and set an Olympic record that would not be matched until American track and field champ Carl Lewis captured four golds at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

5. Owens was the first Adidas influencer.

Owens won the golds wearing custom-fitted Adidas footwear. The running shoes, designed by Adidas founder Adi Dassler, boasted specially positioned spikes and a low-cut upper. Owens effectively became the first American athlete to endorse the brand. Eighty years later, in 2016, the Owens family partnered with Adidas for Black History Month and introduced a line of commemorative Jesse Owens shoes. 

6. He befriended his strongest Olympic challenger.

Jesse Owens competes in the long jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics.
Jesse Owens competes in the long jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics. / Central Press/GettyImages

Owens’s leap of 8.06 meters in the long jump won him his second gold of the Berlin games. Before the event, he had gotten some advice about his run-up from a German challenger, Carl Ludwig “Luz” Long. Long won silver (that’s him giving the Nazi salute in a photo of the awards ceremony) and quickly congratulated Owens on placing first. Afterward, the two posed together for photos and put their arms around each other. Long died in World War II fighting for Germany.

7. He felt snubbed after the Berlin Olympics, but not by Hitler.

Immediately following the Berlin Games, a myth emerged that Hitler, enraged by Owens’s triumph, refused to congratulate him and would not shake his hand. One sportswriter covering the Games reported that the German leader gave the Olympic champion a “friendly little Nazi salute.” Owens claimed that the two exchanged congratulatory waves. Then he clarified that the real affront had come from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who didn’t invite any Olympic athletes to the White House following the Games. “Hitler didn’t snub me—it was our president who snubbed me,” Owens said later. “The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

8. He performed demeaning stunt races to make ends meet.

Despite his worldwide fame after the Berlin Games, the Olympic champion returned to Jim Crow America and found his ways of making a living limited. Owens began competing in stunt races to earn money. He ran against trains, cars, motorcycles, dogs, and even a racehorse in Cuba. “People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse,” Owens said later, “but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”

9. Owens served as an athletic ambassador for the State Department and a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations.

Jesse Owens poses with his four gold medals, late 1950s
Jesse Owens, in the late 1950s, poses with the four gold medals he won at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite unfair treatment at home after his Olympic victories, Owens’s achievements were eventually recognized by presidents. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower named him the official U.S. ambassador of sports. In this role, he represented the United States at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. At the height of the Cold War, Owens also traveled to Asian countries as a goodwill ambassador for the UN.

10. He received honors from two American presidents.

Owens received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award the United States can bestow on a civilian. President Gerald R. Ford did the honors. The celebrated Olympian was also posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush.

11. Owens smoked a pack of cigarettes a day.

Perhaps surprisingly, the elite athlete was a smoker for decades. In the 1950s, he smoked while appearing on All-American News, the first newsreel series produced for Black audiences. At the end of a clip about Black athletes, Owens lights his cigarette and one for the host, journalist and entrepreneur Claude Barnett. Barnett points out that Owens is smoking Chesterfields, the film’s sponsor. Owens died of lung cancer on March 31, 1980, at age 66.

12. A street in Berlin was renamed in his memory.

Jesse Owens at home in Phoenix, Arizona, surround by his winning trophies.
Jesse Owens at home in Phoenix, Arizona, surround by his winning trophies. / Don Morley/Allsport/Getty Images

In March 1984, a Berlin street was renamed to honor the Olympic champion four years after his death. The rechristened thoroughfare is just outside the stadium where Owens stunned Nazi Germany and the world by winning four golds. With a small ceremony, Stadium Avenue became Jesse Owens Allee. Owens’s then-68-year-old widow, Ruth, unveiled the new signpost to applause from a gathered crowd.