How Jesse Owens Impacted the Nation (Fall 2012)

In today’s society, athletes serve a colossal purpose both on and off the field with their inimitable capability to influence the American nation. Those athletes who exhibit profound athletic success along with vast character are used not only to glamorize one as a role model, but are the principal components of an Olympian. Jesse Owens is the quintessence of an Olympian. Owens athleticism and morality not only defined him, but caused him to become a role model for Americans as well. By discussing Owens’ life, and integrating historical forces, it will become increasingly clear why Owens is a role model for Americans.

Owens was born in 1913, into an Alabama sharecropping family that was struggling to get by. During this time, many sharecroppers were forced into worsening poverty as it was a period drastic change and industrialization. This is one of the ways the force of science and technology impacted Owens’ impoverished family, as they were forced to move in order to survive. His family moved in 1922 to Cleveland, Ohio where he remained until he went to college. The city of Cleveland had a historical prevalence of antislavery, civil rights, and racial integration during this time, which is why the Owens family moved there. Interestingly, the 1920s was a period of revival for the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and their presence became known throughout Ohio. However, the East side ghetto where the Owens family took residence remained untouched by the KKK, which is one of the reasons they chose Cleveland other than the abundant opportunity for jobs. Owens was subjected to bigotry during his time at Bolton Elementary school. Bolton was racially integrated and when Owens arrived, the principal assumed Owens could not read or write, as he was a black child from Alabama, and placed him into the first grade, even though he should have been in second grade.

Owens first athletic success came during his time at Fairmont Junior High School, where his gym teacher Charles Ray saw him run, and immediately began training him to become a sprinter. Owens set his first records in 1928, when he shattered previous world records for junior high school athletics in the high jump and long jump. This was only the beginning of Owens success. During his high school athletic career, he finished first in 75 out of 79 track meets and single handedly won his high school the state championship. Owens returned a hero to Cleveland because of his monumental feats achieved at the state tournament. This iconic status he obtained wasn’t leaving him anytime soon, as he attended the Ohio State University and broke even more records, but this time on a much larger scale.

Owens time at Ohio State was very successful athletically, but the same cannot be said for his academic success. Owens was restricted from participating in numerous track meets because of his poor academic status, but this never hindered him from trying to become the fastest and greatest. In 1935 at the Big Ten Championship, Owens broke three world records and tied one within three hours at the meet. Not only did Owens make history at the 1935 Big Ten Championship meet, but after his stunning performance he was chosen to be the captain of the Ohio State track team. Owens became the first black to ever become captain in the Big Ten. A few months later, Owens participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Owens iconic status reached its pinnacle during the 1936 Olympics. He competed in the 100 meter and 200 meter dashes, broad jump, and 400 meter relay, winning gold in each event and setting world records in the broad jump and 200 meter dash. His athletic prowess bolstered him into becoming a role model for American’s because of when and where he succeeded. Winning four Olympic gold medals in Berlin Germany was touted as a victory over Hitler and his Nazi canon. The American culture places grave importance on sport, alluding to his victories giving American’s hope not only to win a soon coming war, but for racial change as well. Owens celebrity became a major breakthrough for African Americans, even though their unequal status stayed unaffected. The force of personal and group identities, as well as the role of specific individuals comes into play here. The impact Owens had was so flabbergasting, that countless newspapers in the South for the first time ever featured an African American athlete. For the first time, Owens made it acceptable for the entire nation to support an African American as a role model. Before he even competed in the Olympics, Owens was acting iconically, displaying traits of a role model, as he was taking a stand against those who were boycotting the Olympics.

Hitler and his dogmas against Jews made the Berlin Olympics extremely controversial. Numerous organizations such as the NAACP, and the American Athletic Union (AAU) urged athletes not to participate in the “fascist” Olympics and to boycott them. Owens held firm on his views of the Olympics by refusing to boycott them. Owens reasons stemmed from his and a copious amount of African American athlete’s being excluded from the Sugar Bowl, simply due to their skin color. He stated, why should he combat Germany for doing something we do in our nation, if no one was proposing to cancel those games? Owens created a great disturbance, but not long after he voiced his opinion, countless African American athlete’s joined his side, altering the NAACP and AAU’s decisions to boycott the Olympics.

Owens athletic feats confronted American racial discrimination. In a country that fostered athletic success, Americans would only accept someone as a role model who was athletically successful. The idea of Owens representing the U.S.A. is ironic because Owens was an African American experiencing repression by the Jim Crow laws. Owens obligated not only American Whites to challenge their ethnic ideas and celebrate his success, but for Germany and the rest of the world too. The force of specific individuals to influence change is exemplified by Owens here. Interestingly, both President Roosevelt and Hitler refused to shake Owens hand after he had won four gold medals. Owens never let any bigotry get to him, and by using his athletic prowess as an example he was able to create a societal breakthrough in the U.S.A.

Owens was forced to stop competitively racing after the Berlin Olympics because the AAU and Owens got into an argument, and Owens, remaining stern on his view points, wouldn’t settle with them. He didn’t like how he would make ridiculous amount of money for the AAU competing in races, but he couldn’t afford to buy a souvenir of the trip without sacrificing his nutrition. The force of specific individuals is significant here. Again, Owens remained strong on his morals and by doing so, he started a reform in the athletic world, which eventually led to athlete’s getting more freedom and financial compensation for competing in races around the world. Owens Olympic fame stemmed to many lucrative offers when he arrived home; however, due to his skin color, none of them actually sustained. America turned its back on Owens, but he refused to do the same to his nation that had provided him with so many opportunities. Owens used his success in Berlin to help others, and force change. Even when Owens found himself with significant financial burdens, he refused to place blame on others for his misfortunes, and continued to help his community. Two core principles of his enigmatic character contributed not only to his athletic success, but to his ability to become a role model and icon for Americans; hard work and personal responsibility. Owens was able to elevate himself using these principles.

Personal responsibility was crucial to Owens’ success, as he not once allowed bigotry or socioeconomic barriers hinder his success. Numerous times Owens found himself, along with his fellow African American teammates, traveling in separate cars and eating in different restaurants than the rest of their team; another example of how the force of personal and group identities affect change. This even occurred the same year Owens smashed four world records at the Big Ten championship track meet. Not once did he succumb to the bigotry placed upon him by the American society. Taking personal responsibility, Owens motivated himself to achieve success regardless of the prejudice, poverty, and racism he experienced throughout a majority of his life – a defining value of a role model.

Success didn’t always come to Owens, but through hard work his success couldn’t be hindered. During his freshman year at Ohio State, Owens failed to qualify countless times. One of the most memorable to him was when he failed to pass the qualifying heats at a track meet against rival Michigan. Sitting in the bleachers, he found himself a spectator to a massacre, as Michigan doubled Ohio State’s earned points. Owens didn’t look at his short fall to qualify as a failure; instead, he looked at it as an area of improvement, knowing that if he was to continue to work hard, he would triumph. Simply being able to compete in track meets didn’t come easy for Owens as he lived in a poor family. When he first joined the team in fifth grade, he was forced to train before school instead of after, so that he could continue to support his family with the two jobs he worked. With hard work Owens took advantage of opportunities and nurtured his abilities, never accepting that he was born with an innate athletic talent superior to everyone else. Owens preached this to everyone he worked with and helped while performing humanitarian work.

Over the course of 40 years, Owens helped others and changed their lives with his work. His humanitarian work varied, and many times found himself in other countries, using his athletic fame to help others. The force of the role of specific individuals is apparent here. On one occasion, Owens was in the Philippines serving as a democratic diplomat. Traveling to various areas of the Philippines, he worked with children showing them the proper mechanics of sprinting. While working with the children, he noticed that most of the children were running barefoot because they were too poor to afford shoes. After arriving back to the U.S.A, he created a fund raiser to acquire the funds necessary to send the children running spikes. A few months later, every child he worked with in the Philippines had a pair of running spikes. Owens dedicated himself to children in his home nation as well.

Owens real ambitions were to help the youth of the nation, which he acquired various jobs to specifically do that. For two decades, Owens served as the director of the Illinois Youth Commission in which he was able to work with children across Illinois. Each week, Owens dedicated countless hours helping juvenile delinquents. Owens used sport as a remedy to delinquency, and he sought to fix them by personally working with them. His dedication seems limitless as he would not only bring them to various sporting events, but many times to his house as well. At one event he supervised, Owens noticed that on the pole outside of the school, there was no American flag flying. After searching franticly for a flag, Owens scaled the flag pole and attached the American flag to it. This exemplifies his dedication to changing delinquent youth through being a positive role model.

Through his athletic accomplishments, unparalleled character, and humanitarian work, Owens was able to become one of the first African American role models for the nation. Owens became an image of victory against fascism for the American democracy at a time characteristic of segregation and bigotry. Through his athletic accomplishments, Owens confronted cultural stereotypes of success, and revealed that African Americans are no different than their White counterparts to the nation. Also, Owens proved that regardless of hardship, success is possible through hard work and character which he instilled into the youth of the nation.


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