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James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) was an American track and field athlete who specialized in the sprints and the long jump. He participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where he achieved international fame by winning four gold medals: one each in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and as part of the 4×100 meter relay team. He was the most successful athlete at the 1936 Summer Olympics, a victory more poignant and often noted because Adolf Hitler had intended the 1936 games to showcase his Aryan ideals and prowess.
The Jesse Owens Award, USA Track and Field’s highest accolade for the year’s best track and field athlete, is named after him, in honor of his significant career.
Awards, tributes and honors
In 1936, four English Oak saplings, one for each Olympic gold medal, from the German Olympic Committee. The only survivor is believed to be an oak tree on The Ohio State University campus.
In 1970, Owens was inducted to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1976 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford.
In 1980, a new asteroid was discovered by Antonín Mrkos at Kleť Observatory which was named as 6758 Jesseowens in honor of Jesse Owens.
USA Track and Field created the Jesse Owens Award in 1981, which is given annually to the country’s top track and field athlete.
In 1984, an Emmy Award-winning biographical television film of his life, The Jesse Owens Story, was released, with Dorian Harewood portraying Owens.
In 1984 a street near the Olympic Stadium in Berlin was renamed Jesse-Owens-Allee, and the Jesse Owens Realschule/Oberschule (a secondary school) in Berlin-Lichtenberg, was named for him.
On March 28, 1990, Owens was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George H. W. Bush.
Two U.S. postage stamps have been issued to honor Owens, one in 1990 and another in 1998.
In 1996, Owens’s hometown of Oakville, Alabama, dedicated Jesse Owens Memorial Park in his honor, at the same time that the Olympic Torch came through the community, 60 years after his Olympic triumph. An article in the Wall Street Journal of June 7, 1996, covered the event and included this inscription written by poet Charles Ghigna that appears on a bronze plaque at the Park:
May his light shine forever as a symbol
for all who run for the freedom of sport,
for the spirit of humanity,
for the memory of Jesse Owens.
In 2001, The Ohio State University dedicated Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium for track and field events. The campus also houses three recreational centers for students and staff named in his honor.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Jesse Owens on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
In Cleveland, Ohio, a statue of Owens in his Ohio State track suit was installed at Fort Huntington Park, west of the old Courthouse.
Phoenix, Arizona named the Jesse Owens Medical Plaza in his honor, as well as Jesse Owens Parkway.
Jesse Owens Park, located in Tucson, Arizona, is a staple of local youth athletics there.
At the 2009 World Athletic Championships in Berlin, all members of the United States Track & Field team wore badges with “JO” to commemorate Owens’s victories in the same stadium 73 years before.
In early 2010, the Ohio Historical Society proposed Jesse Owens as a finalist from a statewide vote for inclusion in Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol.
On Monday, November 15, 2010, the city of Cleveland renamed East Roadway, between Rockwell and Superior avenues in Public Square, Jesse Owens Way, in hopes that it will keep the great Jesse Owens on the minds of all sports fans.
A novel in French written by Lebanese novelist Alexandre Najjar, Berlin 36, Plon (publisher), Paris, 2009, tells the story of Owens, particularly during the Berlin Olympic games. Najjar visited Chicago, Ohio and Alabama to achieve this distinguished tribute to Owens.
For his contribution to sports in Los Angeles, he was honored with a Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum “Court of Honor” plaque by the Coliseum commissioners.