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Jesse Owens

  • Story Highlights
  • Olympic record: 4 gold medals
  • In 1976 he received the Medal of Freedom
  • Athlete; born September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama
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(CNN) -- African American Jesse Owens remains the most iconic Olympian of them all.

Owens defied Hitler by winning four gold medals in Berlin in 1936.

Owens defied Hitler by winning four gold medals in Berlin in 1936.

Although there have been more successful athletes in Olympic history, Owens' four gold medals at the Nazi-dominated 1936 Berlin Games earned him a unique place in the sporting hall of fame.

Born James Cleveland Owens -- he was nicknamed Jesse by a school teacher -- he was the son of a sharecropper and grandson of slaves.

Despite suffering from chronic bronchial problems as a child, he excelled as a high school athlete, and attracted national attention in May 1935 when, at a Big Ten athletics meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in the space of an hour.

It was the Olympic Games of the following year, however, that secured Owens' place in popular mythology.

Held in the German capital, Hitler had intended the Xlth Olympiad to stand as a testament to the racial superiority of white Aryan athletes, openly denigrating Afro-American performers as "non-humans."

In one of the greatest sporting rebuffs of all time, Owens -- one of 18 black athletes on the U.S. team -- duly won four gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4x100 meters relay.

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His 100 meters time of 10.3 seconds equaled the Olympic record, while his performances in the 200 meters and long jump -- 20.7 seconds and 8.06 meters respectively -- set new world records.

The 39.8 seconds recorded by U.S. 4x100 meters team also set a world record, one that stood for 20 years.

Although the Nazi press was openly scathing, condemning the U.S. team's use of 'black auxiliaries', the German spectators recognized Owens' achievement and gave him a standing ovation.

The first person to congratulate him after his long jump victory was German silver medallist Luz Long.

"It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler," Owens later commented.

"You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Long at that moment."

Ticker-tape parade

Owens returned to the U.S. a hero. Despite that, he was unable to escape the racial prejudice and segregationism of his fellow countrymen.

Olympic record

1936 -- 4 gold (100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, 4x100 meters relay)

Although he received a New York ticker tape parade, he was forced to ride in a freight elevator to a reception in his honor at the Waldorf Astoria.

"Although I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler," he said, "I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either."

He failed to attract the endorsements and sponsorship deals enjoyed by white athletes, and was reduced to running exhibition races against dogs and horses to make ends meet.

It was not until the 1950s, 20 years after his Berlin triumph, that he finally achieved a measure of financial security, opening a public relations firm and becoming a highly successful public speaker.

In 1976 he received the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor the U.S. can bestow, and in 1990, a decade after his death from lung cancer, President George Bush awarded him a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor.

In perhaps the most fitting memorial to his achievements, a street in Berlin was renamed in his honor in 1984.

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