James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens was an American track and field athlete and four-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1936 Games.
Owens specialized in the sprints and the long jump and was recognized in his lifetime as "perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history". His achievement of setting three world records and tying another in less than an hour at the 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been called "the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport" and has never been equaled. At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, Owens achieved international fame by winning four gold medals: 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4 × 100 meter relay. He was the most successful athlete at the Games and, as a black man, was credited with "single-handedly crushing Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy", although he "wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either."
The Jesse Owens Award is USA Track and Field's highest accolade for the year's best track and field athlete. Owens was ranked by ESPN as the sixth greatest North American athlete of the twentieth century and the highest-ranked in his sport. In 1999 he was on the six-man shortlist for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Century.
Owens was the youngest of ten children, three girls and seven boys, born to Henry Cleveland Owens (a sharecropper) and Mary Emma Fitzgerald in Oakville, Alabama, on September 12, 1913. J.C., as he was called, was nine years old when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for better opportunities, as part of the Great Migration, when 1.5 million African Americans left the segregated South. When his new teacher asked his name, he said "J.C.", but because of his strong Southern accent, she thought he said "Jesse". The name stuck, and he was known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.
As a youth, Owens took different jobs in his spare time: he delivered groceries, loaded freight cars and worked in a shoe repair shop while his father and older brother worked at a steel mill. During this period, Owens realized that he had a passion for running. Throughout his life, Owens attributed the success of his athletic career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his junior high track coach at Fairmount Junior High School. Since Owens worked in a shoe repair shop after school, Riley allowed him to practice before school instead.
Owens and Minnie Ruth Solomon (1915–2001) met at Fairmont Junior High School in Cleveland when he was 15 and she was 13. They dated steadily through high school. Ruth gave birth to their first daughter, Gloria, in 1932. They married on July 5, 1935 and had two more daughters together: Marlene, born in 1937, and Beverly, born in 1940. They remained married until his death in 1980.