Jesse Owens: A Story Of Struggle And Perseverance

Jesse Owens was a Black American track and field athlete most notable for winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games. Like any person of color, he faced many challenges and barriers throughout his life and career. Despite his great international achievement, he had an objectively hard childhood. He was born into a struggling working-class family of Owens in Oakville, Alabama, with his father being a sharecropper at that time and his grandfather being formerly enslaved. Eventually, his family escaped the oppression of the segregated South and moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for a better life as a part of the Great Migration. From a young age, he tried to support his family by working various jobs, including delivering groceries, helping a shoe repair shop, etc. Being such a busy young boy, Jesse realized his passion for running for the first time. With the encouragement of his track coach from his Junior High School, he continued to pursue running, later becoming one of the greatest athletes in US history. However, despite his perseverance, his path toward greatness was hard and filled with impediments because of racial bias and discrimination.

After finding his passion for running, Jesse preserved through all the challenges to continue running. His first achievement was at the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago. His running record of 9.4 seconds in the 100 yards run was equal to the world record. He was only a high school student and was already running at the world record speed, bringing the nation’s attention to himself. However, despite his extraordinary talent and effort, he was rejected for a scholarship at the Ohio State University. He applied to this university to study and secure stable employment to support his growing family in the future, as his parents had two more daughters together. Regardless of the rejection, Jesse still enrolled in the university and continued to work part-time to fund his studies. He persisted in his hard work and passion.

In spite of these struggles, Owens continued training and won an astonishing record of eight individual NCAA championships, which was never done before him (Brooks & Jones, 2021). However, he still had to pay for his studies, live off-campus with other African-American students, and stay and eat at “Black Only” hotels and restaurants. Although he was an accomplished athlete at the time, he did not enjoy any privileges that came with it and only encountered troubles because of his race.

In 1935, Jesse established four world records, with the sports experts admitting it as the biggest accomplishment since the previous century. The next big thing for Owens was the 1936 Olympic Games. However, the games and Owen’s participation was embroiled in controversy. The NAACP was actively trying to convince him to refuse his participation. Although it may sound like the NAACP’s racial bias, there was a significant reason beyond that. In 1936, Hitler was in power in Germany, promoting Nazi ideology. Specifically, Germany banned all minority groups from competing in sports, establishing an “Aryan only” policy. Despite the NAACP’s representatives’ insistence that the US should not participate due to such blatant discrimination in Germany, The American Olympic Committee dismissed all the critics labeling them anti-American. Thus, Owens had to face the pressure of competing in a nation that supported Nazi ideology, being a Black American himself.

Jesse was undoubtedly proclaimed the most successful athlete at the 1936 Olympic Games, breaking records and winning four gold medals. Moreover, he was the first-ever American athlete to win four gold medals at the Olympics. Not long after, the newspaper reported Hitler leaving the stadium after Owen’s win. In fact, Hitler refused to shake hands with Owens and congratulate him. Even after Hitler was cornered, he decided not to congratulate anyone if it, including Jesse. However, Owens was not upset by Hitler’s lack of response. Furthermore, Germany allowed him to intermingle with other athletes: stay and eat with them, which he had never experienced back home. Even in the Nazi regime, he was treated better than at home.

The lack of response from US President Roosevelt shed light on the true attitudes toward Black people in America. Owens describes that rather than being upset with Hitler, he was disappointed with Roosevelt for not acknowledging or congratulating him on his historic victory. In fact, he did not recognize any of the accomplishments of 18 other Black athletes. Moreover, Roosevelt invited only White athletes to the White House. Historians now speculate that Roosevelt ignored Black athletes to secure support from Southern states. However, this fact only showed the extent and prevalence of discriminatory behavior in the US. Contrasted with the non-discriminatory practices of Nazi Germany in settling Black sportspeople, this attitude from the US citizens and Roosevelt seems even more atrocious. Furthermore, it is important to note the extent of the prestige that Owens and other Black sportspeople brought to the US, exacerbating the issue even further.

Despite these struggles, like many other notable Black people, Owens persevered in their passion and hard work, achieving success. He left a remarkable impact on the athletic field, achieving numerous records and being the first American to get four gold medals in the Olympics. His challenges against racial bias also influenced the social sphere of the US, inspiring Black people to fight for their rights.


Brooks, F. E., & Jones Sr, K. M. (2021). Jesse Owens: A Life in American History. ABC-CLIO.