Tiny unincorporated Oakville (Pop. 113) in Lawrence County has given the world one thing of note. But, what it did give us may never be forgotten. It was the hometown of the son of a sharecropper; a manual laborer and humble farm kid who would go on to become the most dominating track and field athlete of all-time, if not the most famous: Jesse Owens was born here in 1913.
After being born and spending his first decade in North Alabama, Owens’ family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. In 1933 in Chicago, Owens would attract the world’s attention at the High School National Championships when he equaled the world record in the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds) and posted a long-jump of 24 feet 9 1⁄2 inches. While he gained considerable notoriety in high school, he was not eligible for a scholarship. He was able to attend college as a walk-on, but — like most of the nation — Ohio State was segregated, and Owens had to dine, travel, and live apart from the team. Still, his father’s employment and Jesse’s odd jobs ensured that Owens could attend college.
And, in the magical years of 1935-1936, both in college and as an Olympian, Jesse Owens set the world afire.
First, as a Buckeye in 1935 and 1936, Owens competed in 42 events. And he won every one of them. Owens won eight NCAA championships — a record that would not be equaled until 2006 (and even then, Xavier Carter only did so by tallying relay events.) His 100m school record would not be broken until...last month. But even that does not do justice to the scope of his dominance:
Owens achieved track and field immortality in a span of 45 minutes on May 25, 1935, during the Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he set three world records and tied a fourth. He equaled the world record for the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds) (not to be confused with the 100-meter dash), and set world records in the long jump (26 ft 8 1⁄4 in or 8.13 m, a world record that would last for 25 years); 220 yards (201.2 meters) sprint (20.3 seconds); and 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds, becoming the first to break 23 seconds). Both 220 yard records may also have beaten the metric records for 200 meters (flat and hurdles), which would count as two additional world records from the same performances. In 2005, University of Central Florida professor of sports history Richard C. Crepeau chose these wins on one day as the most impressive athletic achievement since 1850.
Needless to say, the “Buckeye Bullet” was invited to join the Olympic team, a singular honor that may have never happened had the NAACP followed through with their plan to pressure Owens to boycott the 1936 Berlin Games (both for reasons of internal civil rights as much as anti-German sentiment). The NAACP was not alone either; there was growing distaste in the country for the Nazi regime, and many felt the U.S. national teams should boycott the Games in toto.
On paper, it is easy to list Owens accomplishments in Berlin. Per the International Olympic Committee:
At the 1936 Berlin Games, Owens won four gold medals, in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and the long jump. He managed to break or equal nine Olympic records and also set three world records. One of those world records was in the 4x100m relay. The quartet set a time that wouldn’t be bettered for 20 years.
But what Owens accomplished on that track meant so much more. And to debunk Hitler’s Übermensch fable in his own backyard? Priceless:
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