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One of the most remarkable facts of Jesse Owens becoming one of the most recognisable black athletes ever, is that as a child he was extremely unhealthy. He suffered from chronic bronchial congestion, which meant difficulty breathing and pneumonia, potentially a life threatening condition.
Born James Cleveland Owens in 1913, he established himself as an up and coming athlete at middle school in Cleveland, where his family had moved from Alabama. It was there that he met Charles Riley, who became his coach. Riley recognised immediately that he had a precocious talent on his hands and immediately began training the youngster in all aspects of athletics. Riley was more than just a coach though, he became a person that Jesse Owens could turn to for advice on personal matters away from the sports field, and remained a lifelong friend.
Owens sprang to national attention in 1933 at the National High School Championship in Chicago. It was here that he tied the world record for the hundred-yard dash, and jumped close to twenty-five feet. Two years later he confirmed himself a potential all time great when he broke three world records at the Big Ten Conference Championships.
Jesse Owens is most well known for his role at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler had planned to use the event to show the supremacy of the German nation, especially concentrating on trying to prove that those not of Aryan race were of a lesser breed. Owens dispelled this myth with some of the finest displays of athletics ever, so confirming that black athletes could be as good, if not better, than other athletes. He won four gold medals at the games, breaking three records and tying another, and these records stood for at least twenty years. Into the bargain, he had shown Hitler’s theories on Aryan supremacy to be totally twisted and unfounded.
After the conclusion of the Second World War, Owens took part in various exhibition races, and toured the world with sporting teams, and he made plenty of money performing these duties. However, because he failed to pay any income tax, he was declared bankrupt. He re-emerged in the fifties and sixties to be a popular public speaker, liked by both blacks and whites. Unfortunately, Jesse Owens died from cancer in 1980, aged 66.