This Day in History: March 28
- Published: Mar 28, 2016, 4 AM
To win four Olympic gold medals is a feat in itself, but to do so as a man of color in host country Germany’s athletic arena before the world and the watchful eye of Adolf Hitler in 1936, with World War II looming, is unprecedented.
The achievements of Olympic track and field athlete Jesse Owens both on and off the field of competition are extensive. For that, Congress felt it fitting, subsequently, to authorize a congressional gold medal recognizing Owens’ “athletic achievements and humanitarian contributions to public service, civil rights and international goodwill.”
The medal was authorized under provisions of Public Law 100-437, signed into law Sept. 20, 1988, by President Reagan, and President George H.W. Bush presented the medal posthumously to his widow, Ruth, on March 28, 1990.
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Owens was the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave. He, along with his family, moved from Alabama to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1922 when he was 9. He grew up to become a track and field standout at The Ohio State University.
World record performances at the Big 10 Championships in 1935 were a preview to his achievements executed the following year at the Berlin Olympics.
Owens became the first American track and field athlete to capture four gold medals in a single Olympiad.
Owens’ achievement stood alone until track and field athlete Carl Lewis matched Owens’ feat at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
“Although others have gone on to win more gold medals than Jesse, he remains the best remembered Olympic athlete because he achieved what no Olympian before or since has accomplished,” according to www.jesseowens.com. “During a time of deep-rooted segregation, he not only discredited Hitler’s master race theory, but also affirmed that individual excellence, rather than race or national origin, distinguishes one man from another.”
The obverse of the Jesse Owens congressional gold medal features a portrait of Jesse Owens and is inscribed with his name, years of his birth and death — 1913–1980 — and the words OLYMPIC CHAMPION.
The reverse features Owens as an Olympic sprinter. Inscriptions are ACT OF CONGRESS 1988, HUMANITARIAN and ATHLETE, as well as words suggested by the Owens family and his friends as the qualities he stood for and preached to young people DETERMINATION, DEDICATION, DISCIPLINE and ATTITUDE.
The Owens congressional gold medal is secured at The Jesse Owens Foundation in Chicago.
Collectors may still obtain 1.5-inch bronze duplicates of the Owens medal from the United States Mint for $6.95 each.
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