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Jesse Owens

American athlete James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens was born on September 12, 1913. At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, he won four gold medals.

Owens was born in Alabama as the tenth child of sharecroppers and moved with his family to Cleveland in the 1920s as part of the massive migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North.

In junior high school, Owens was befriended by Charles Riley, a white teacher and coach, who saw talent in the small, slight black youth. He developed his sprinting, hurdling, and long-jump skills at Cleveland East Tech High School where he dominated Ohio high school track and field. Owens first came to national attention when he tied the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash and long-jumped 24 feet 9 1/2 inches at the 1933 National High School Championship meet in Chicago. In college, Owens continued to excel in track and field, winning a record eight individual ncaa championships. His greatest collegiate performance occurred at the 1935 Big Ten Conference Championship where he tied or established world records in the 100-yard dash, long jump, 220-yard dash, and the 220-yard low hurdles.

Owens is most famous for his performance during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. Adolf Hitler had planned to use the games to showcase German prosperity amid the worldwide depression and to demonstrate Aryan physical supremacy by fielding a strong German team. Although Germany did win more medals than any other nation, Owens's brilliant individual performance overshadowed its achievement. He won four gold medals, tying the 100-meter dash record and establishing new Olympic records in the 200-meter dash, long jump, and 4 X 100-meter relay. His records in the relay and the 200-meter dash were not broken until the 1956 games, and the others stood until 1960.

Following the games, Owens returned to the United States and attempted to cash in on his newfound fame by exploiting the offers telegraphed to him in Berlin. He reportedly received ten thousand dollars for supporting Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon in 1936, but few of the other offers materialized. He was reduced to performing in exhibitions such as running races against horses and touring with a band and basketball and baseball teams. These appearances were lucrative, but a laundry he owned failed because of poor management. Owens was taken to court for not paying his income taxes, and he eventually declared bankruptcy.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, however, Owens prospered by working in public relations for major corporations. His modesty, patriotism, and sincerity made him an excellent public speaker, much in demand. He remained a hero to black Americans and was acceptable to white people because of his conservative position on race issues. Ironically, he was criticized by many black Americans because he was a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee during racial protests at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Nevertheless, he remained America's most popular and famous track and field athlete until his death from cancer in 1980.

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