Jesse Owens, Before Berlin
The world knows him as the track & field star who dispelled Adolf Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy at the 1936 Olympics. But a year before the Summer Games were held in Berlin, Jesse Owens set three world records and tied a fourth when he achieved what is remembered today as the ’greatest 45 minutes in sports’.
In July of 1936, Owens and his U.S. teammates set sail across the Atlantic to compete at the 6th modern Olympiad in Berlin, Germany. In a period of a week, the 22-year old claimed four gold medals: the 100 meter sprint, the 200 meter sprint, the long-jump and the 4 x100 meter relay.
Owens’ feat was a political coup as much as an athletic accomplishment. The 1936 Games served as a showcase for Hitler’s Nazi propaganda and Owens, who was derided by the Nazis as being part of America’s “black auxiliaries”, dispatched the Germans on their own racist turf.
With time, Owens’ gold count and virtuoso performance in Europe were matched and surpassed. In 1984, Carl Lewis took gold in the same sprinting and jumping categories at the Olympics in Los Angeles. Despite his legendary status, Owens’ individual records in the 100m and 200m races, or in the long-jump competition, are no longer ranked at the top.
But the man who crushed Hitler’s ideology was already written in sports lore prior to Berlin. The Alabama native who picked cotton as a child before his family decided to uproot and move north set lasting memories when he was a student at Ohio State University.
The date was May 25th, 1935 and the NCAA was holding its Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In under an hour, the track & field luminary carved a slice of athletic history that remains unprecedented to date.
At 3.15 pm, the “Buckeye Bullet” ran the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds to tie an international record. Starting off slower than his peers, Owens’ tremendous acceleration placed him in the lead by the 30-yard mark. Most of the official timers clocked him at 9.3 seconds, but the rules of the day attributed the slowest time recorded, which was 9.4. No other runner would claim 9.3 seconds until 1948.
At 3.25 pm, Owens leaped 26 feet and 8¼ inches to capture a long-jump record, which stayed on the books for the next 25 years until Ralph Boston beat it by 3 inches. Owens’ jump exceeded by half a foot the previous record set in 1931 by Japan’s Chuhei Nambu. Only Bob Beamon overtook Owens’ margin when he cleared the record by almost 23 inches in a legal, but wind-assisted jump at the 1968 Olympics.
At 3.34 pm, Owens lined up for the 220-yard dash which he won in 20.3 seconds, smashing the old record of 20.6. He finished so far ahead of his opponents that it looked as if he was running on his own. At 4 pm, the college sophomore took the 220-yard low hurdles in 22.6 seconds, becoming the first person to clock that race in under 23.
Owens’ achievement on that landmark day represents the most accomplished 45 minutes in the annals of any sport.
His triumph was also made that much more enduring considering he injured his back several days earlier tumbling down a flight of stairs while horse-playing with fraternity brothers.
With severe pain and his mobility hampered, there were discussions whether he should skip the meet, but Owens refused to abandon the tournament altogether. Taking each event at a time, he gave himself just a single long-jump attempt, which ended up topping the charts for the next two and half decades.
Because his performance at the 220-yard chase and the hurdles bettered the existing records at the shorter 200 meter races, Owens received credit for the metric world records as well. In effect, he actually set 5 records and equaled 1 in just that brief afternoon period.
In 1936, before the trip to Berlin, Owens replicated his NCAA performance from the previous year and won 4 more individual championships. Since then, only Xavier Carter of LSU (2006) was able to match 4 national titles in the same competition day.
His running career lasting only four years with just one Olympics, the star athlete of the 1930's had his numbers eventually overtaken with time. But for a record 45 minutes in 1935, Jesse Owens reached further than anyone else in the history of sports.
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