Jesse Owens: The Incredible Story of the ‘Buckeye Bullet’ at the 1936 Olympics
Berlin, Germany. August 9, 1936.
Imagine: This is a moment of extreme tension. The world is on the brink of World War II, and the Nazi party, led by Adolf Hitler, has risen to power in Germany. Propaganda advocating for the supremacy of whites and the building of a “pure,” Aryan nation is abundant.
Berlin has been scheduled to host the 1936 Olympic games, but Hitler is uninterested — of what value is internationalism? However, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels convinces him to think differently. “Imagine the possibilities!” he may have said, “This could be our opportunity to impose our ideals on the world.”
Meanwhile, J.C. Owens, mistakenly re-monikered “Jesse” by his elementary school teacher, faces the most important moment of his life. As a Black man, Jesse understands the gravity of the moment. He’s already proven his athletic prowess, but this moment is different.
This is the moment when Jesse Owens will change the world.
The Birth of a Track Legend
James Cleveland Owens was born in 1913 to sharecroppers in Alabama. Of course, Alabama held extremely scarce opportunities for a young Black man at that time, so Jesse and his family soon moved to Cleveland, Ohio. It was there, at Bolton Elementary School, when Jesse was only nine years old that a teacher mispronounced “J.C.” as “Jesse.” The young Jesse was too shy to speak up and correct her, and his name was forever changed. No matter — Jesse had more important things to worry about.
Jesse was the last of 10 children in his family, and he was unusually prone to sickness. Just after his 5th birthday, he developed a large, fibrous lump on his chest, and the growth began to depress his lungs. The only solution was surgery, but Jesse’s parents lacked the money for the operation. Not to worry — they decided to perform the operation themselves. Owens bit down on a leather strap to help him weather the pain, and his mother removed the growth from his chest with a sterilized kitchen knife. The tiny boy lost a lot of blood but miraculously survived.
Nevertheless, Jesse continued to progress through school, making a name for himself as an athlete along the way. Later, as a student at Ohio State University, Jesse continued striving to become a track legend. Despite being barred from living on campus alongside his teammates, forced to stay in separate hotels, and eat in separate restaurants when the team traveled to meets, Jesse persevered.
At Ohio State, he made history for the first time. In a single day — within 45 minutes, in fact — he broke the world records for the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles, and the running broad jump. As if that weren’t enough, he also equaled the record for the 100-yard dash. That day — May 25, 1935 — Jesse earned his new nickname, the “Buckeye Bullet.”
From that moment on, Jesse was a star, but his true moment of triumph was still ahead of him.
A True American Hero
Just one year later, Jesse traveled to Berlin to participate in the Olympic games along with 311 other American athletes. When the Olympic committee selected Berlin to be the host for the 1936 games way back in ‘33, no one yet knew the terror of the Third Reich. The Nazi regime had not yet risen to its full power, and Germany was not yet the hellish prison it would become to so many marginalized peoples.
But despite the growing power of the Nazi regime, Jesse Owens went anyway. Who can say what ran through his mind; what thoughts occurred to him as he traveled to the one location in the world where he was probably the most unwelcome? Was he determined? Frightened? Angry? Hopeful? A little of everything? Almost certainly.
As a Black man in 1936, Jesse Owens faced a much greater set of obstacles than many of his peers at the Olympic games. Can you imagine traveling to a foreign country and working to perform at the highest level of athletics in the world, all while supremacists and nationalists sneered and scoffed at your mere existence in their presence?
Whatever Jesse felt on August 9, 1936 — whatever fears ran through his mind — one thing is clear: He would not be defeated. That day, he changed history forever by winning four gold medals and setting multiple world records.
Jesse Owens met the world record for the 100-meter dash at just 10.3 seconds.
He broke the world record for the 200-meter dash at 20.7 seconds.
He broke the record for the broad jump, leaping 26 feet and 5 and ⅜ inches.
Finally, Owens and his team won the 4×100-meter relay with yet another world record — just 39.8 seconds.
The audience was astounded, and we’re still astounded today. Imagine: Jesse Owens, a Black man from Alabama — with four gold medals — and in Berlin, Germany, of all places! Hitler and Goebbels may have thought the Olympics was their opportunity to spread racism and bigotry to the rest of the world — how wrong they were.
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Lessons We’ve Learned from Olympians
We love the story of Jesse Owens. The incredible “Buckeye Bullet” simply would not back down in the face of incredible adversity. With public opinion, his own sickly childhood, and the pressures of Nazism and bigotry that were so rampant in 1930s Berlin stacked against him, Jesse Owens refused to give up. He changed history forever — and we’re grateful.
How did he do it? At the moment of truth, when Jesse faced his competitors on the track, how did he rise above adversity and reach new heights of success for himself and for discriminated-against athletes everywhere?
By doing what he did best — running. Jesse worked hard to develop the physical prowess and mental toughness necessary to perform at that high level, so when the time came to perform, he rose to the challenge.
Athletes have a unique position in this world. They struggle and fail. They fall down, sustain injuries, and face pressure from all sides. If you’re an athlete, you know what we’re talking about. But when the moment to shine comes, athletes have the opportunity and ability to shine, and when they do, they inspire us.
We’ve heard a lot of incredible stories from Olympians over the years, Jesse Owens being one of our favorites. Jesse taught us never to give up, even in the face of unbelievable hatred and discrimination. Here are just a few of the other lessons we’ve learned from Olympians:
Apolo Ohno: You Have to Train Your Mind as Well as Your Body
Today, Apolo Ohno is the face of speed skating, but he wasn’t always quite so inspiring. As a kid, Apolo was pretty angry at life. He had never met his mother, and he had no work ethic. He was just a kid with no direction. That is, until he started training his mind.
Once Apolo recognized his talents and committed to training mentally as well as physically, he quickly rose to be unstoppable. His obsession with his chosen sport grew and grew, and he developed into one of the most dedicated athletes in the world. He developed a mindset of focus and passion and drive, and it took him far — all the way to the very top of speed skating.
Shawn Johnson: It’s More About Passion Than Talent
Building on that theme of developing your passion and mental commitment, Shawn Johnson is an incredible example of what it takes to be an athletic star. Ahead of the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, Shawn, of course, trained her body hard. She pushed her intensity to the max so that she could give it her all in competition. But according to her, talent and work are only part of the battle — the most important characteristic of a powerful athlete is passion.
If you’re not passionate about what you do, how can you succeed? It takes a powerful force to maintain the motivation and drive necessary to do the work and achieve success — no matter the area of life you’re striving to achieve in. What are you passionate about? How can you use that passion to drive you toward greatness?
Shaun White: Your Self-Worth Is Not Your Work
Shaun White is a legend in snowboarding. He went pro at just 13 years old, and he has seen incredible success in competition, including the 2006 and 2014 Olympics in Turin and Sochi. It would be easy for Shaun to define himself by his achievements — his list of them is long! But he knows that his value is not in medals or awards. Instead, Shaun focuses on training his body for the long term.
Instead of focusing solely on the tricks he hopes to master for his next competition, Shaun works to maintain his physical fitness for a long and happy career. He prioritizes his health and doesn’t let the small mistakes get him down. To Shaun, his overall well-being is more important than any competition. That’s why he makes sure to take good care of himself.
How Will You Rise to Your Next Challenge?
Jesse Owens was and remains an inspiration and a legend. His courage and determination in the face of adversity will never be forgotten. He demonstrated what it means to be a truly successful athlete, and we’re grateful to hear and be inspired by his story.
But he’s not the only incredible athlete we want to celebrate. Over the years, we’ve watched amazing athletes like Apolo Ohno, Shawn Johnson, and Shaun White beat the odds and achieve greater success than the athletes who came before them.
These athletes have taught us so much. They’ve shown us how to persevere despite any setbacks, how to get up after a fall, and how to overcome a mindset that says, “I can’t.” They’ve taught us to pursue our passions relentlessly and that when we master our minds — we can achieve anything.
What could you achieve if you committed to following your passion? What dreams could you fulfill if you trained your mind as hard as you trained your body? What adversity will you overcome by persevering in the face of all odds?