The most famous athlete of his time, his stunning triumph at the 1936 Olympic Games captivated the world even as it infuriated the Nazis. Despite the racial slurs he endured, Jesse Owens' grace and athleticism rallied crowds across the globe. But when the four-time Olympic gold medalist returned home, he could not even ride in the front of a bus. Jesse Owens is the story of the 22-year-old son of a sharecropper who triumphed over adversity to become a hero and world champion. His story is also about the elusive, fleeting quality of fame and the way Americans idolize athletes when they suit our purpose, and forget them once they don't.

A track star in high school, Owens was courted by a number of universities but chose to attend Ohio State where, as a black athlete, he was not allowed to live on campus. But adversity seemed to make Owens shine. Shortly before the 1935 Big Ten Championship, Owens injured his back and his coach told him to withdraw from the competition. Owens refused, and went on to set three world records and tie a fourth.

In 1936, a movement was growing in the U.S. to organize a boycott of the Olympics over Germany's growing anti-Semitism. The NAACP convinced Owens -- who had never put himself forward as a spokesman -- to make a statement against the games, saying: "If there are minorities in Germany who are being discriminated against, the United States should withdraw from the 1936 Olympics." But after Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, denounced supporters of the boycott as "un-American agitators," Owens and other athletes were pressured to keep quiet and to participate in the games.

The atmosphere around the 1936 Berlin Olympics was highly politically charged. Originally opposed to the idea of the games, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was convinced by his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels that they were the perfect opportunity to showcase the superiority of Aryan athletes. Hitler presided over the opening day ceremonies, whipping the crowds into a frenzy of excitement. On August 3, when Jesse Owens stepped into the massive new Olympic Stadium in Berlin, the crowd went silent with anticipation, sitting on the edge of their seats to see the much-talked-about track star from America compete against the Germans. Running on a muddy track, Owens equaled both the Olympic and world records of 10.3 seconds in the 100-meter dash, winning his first gold medal. Tradition called for the leader of the host country to congratulate the winner but Hitler refused. "Do you really think I will allow myself to be photographed shaking hands with a Negro?" the German leader asked.

In his second event, the long jump, Owens dramatically beat the German favorite, Carl "Luz" Long, setting an Olympic record that stood for 24 years. The two competitors so respected each other that after Long's defeat, they embraced and took the victory lap arm in arm.

The next day, against a headwind, Owens set a world record in the 200-meter dash, achieving his goal of winning three gold medals. Then, unexpectedly, Owens was ordered -- against his wishes -- to replace a Jewish sprinter on the 400-meter relay team. U.S. officials had changed the line-up at the last minute in order to placate their German counterparts by not fielding Jewish athletes. Owens won his fourth gold medal, the first African American to do so.

Following the Olympics, Owens and his teammates were ordered to embark on a European fundraising tour for the Amateur Athletic Union. Tired, exhausted, and already separated from his wife for three months, Owens wanted to go home. Brundage threatened to strip Owens of his amateur athletic standing if he left. Despite this, Owens left, and Brundage made good on his threat. Banned from competing in any sanctioned sporting event in the U.S., the athlete returned to a country with its own racial divide. On his first night back, he and his wife could not find lodging in New York until one hotel finally agreed to rent them a room if they used the service entrance.

Upbeat, positive, and determined, Owens gamely tried anything and everything -- from running against horses for money to operating a dry cleaning business -- to provide for his family. As an athlete Jesse Owens could compete -- and win -- against any man. But once he stepped off the track the same would not hold true.

The years immediately following the 1936 Olympics were difficult for Jesse Owens and his family, but he eventually came to symbolize greatness and achievement in the black community. In 1955 President Dwight Eisenhower named him a Goodwill Ambassador, and Owens traveled around the world to promote the American way of life. In 1980, he died from lung cancer, but his legacy has lived on through the path he paved for future African American athletes.

My American Experience

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • DIG: Nordblom Family Foundation, Gretchen Stone Cook Charitable Foundation (owens, death)
  • Yawkey Foundation