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Race: 17 things about the real Jesse Owens not in the movie

There’s finally a movie to celebrate Jesse Owens, once the fastest man on planet Earth. Just as Hitler was rising to power, Owens competed in the 1936 Olympics in Germany and won four gold medals. He proved to Hitler that on the track and field, it’s not skin color that matters, only how fast you can run. Here are 17 interesting things about Owens not in the film Race. 

The real Jess Owens
Image: public domain

1. Called “the Buckeye Bullet”

Owens earned this nickname after winning a record eight individual NCAA championships between 1935 and 1936.

2. No college scholarships

There were no scholarships available to Owens when he attended Ohio State University. He had to work part-time jobs to pay for school.

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3. Blacks-only housing and restaurants in America

Owens wasn’t allowed to live in the school dorms. Instead, he had to live off-campus with other African-American athletes. When the track team traveled for meets, Owens had to eat take-out or dine at a blacks-only restaurant.

Image: Focus Features

4. “Wo ist Jesse?”

When Owens arrived by train in Berlin, he was greeted by screaming fans, many of them young women. They were all yelling, “Wo ist Jesse?” which means, “Where is Jesse?” in German. Some fans even had scissors to snip off pieces of his clothing. Soldiers had to escort Owens every time he left the athletes’ village because he was so popular. This surprised Owens, because he had been led to believe he’d be hated by the Germans for not being white.

5. Nazi propaganda

Propaganda posters
Image: Iannucci Holocaust History

Posters like these clearly showed that the Nazis planned to use the Olympic Games to reinforce their ideology that the Aryan race was superior. Their plan backfired.

6. Actual footage of Owens racing in front of Hitler

7. Adidas founder supplied Owens with shoes

The founder of Adidas, Adi Dassler, gave Owens a pair of running shoes to wear in the competition. This turned out to be the first sponsorship for a male African-American athlete.

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Image: Focus Features

8. Hitler waved to Owens

After the games, people asked Owens why Hitler did not congratulate him or shake his hand. Owens told The Pittsburgh Press, “Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left, I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the ‘man of the hour’ in another country.”

9. Hotels in Germany were not segregated, like in America

Owens was surprised to find that he could travel and stay with whites in Germany.

10. Paper bag of cash

Owens was honored with a parade in New York City when he returned from the Olympics. A stranger handed him a paper bag, to which Owens didn’t pay much attention. Later, he opened the bag to discover it contained $10,000 in cash.

11. Owens became a Republican

The U.S. president at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, never congratulated Owens on his medals. This may have led Owens to join the Republican Party. At a rally in 1936, Owens said, “Hitler didn’t snub me — it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

Image: Focus Features

12. Owens tried to go pro after Berlin

Though he was invited to compete in Sweden after the Olympics, Owens decided to take on paid sponsorships. This drew the ire of the U.S. athletic officials, who took away his amateur status. However, his sponsors all backed out when they learned Owens couldn’t promote their products at amateur sporting events.

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13. The Negro Baseball League

In 1946, Owens helped to create the West Coast Baseball Association and became owner of the Portland Rosebuds, part of the Negro Baseball League. His stint in baseball only lasted a couple of months.

14. Worked as a sports promoter and raced horses

Owens tried his best to earn a living off his notoriety, but it proved difficult. He even raced against horses for money, specifically choosing horses that would become unnerved when the starter’s shotgun went off. According to ESPN, Owens said, “People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”

Image: Focus Features

15. From bankruptcy to goodwill ambassador

To support his family, Owens owned a dry cleaning company and worked at a gas station, but he was eventually forced to file for bankruptcy. Later, he became a goodwill ambassador for the United States, getting to travel and do public speaking.

16. Owens died from lung cancer at age 66

Owens smoked an entire pack of cigarettes every day for over 30 years, and died from lung cancer in 1980.

17. An asteroid named in Owens’ honor

A new asteroid was discovered in 1980 by an astronomer in the Czech Republic who named it “6758 Jesseowens” to celebrate Owens’ accomplishments.

Race, starring Stephan James, Jeremy Irons and Jason Sudeikis, opens Feb. 19.

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