Jesse Owens, 66, a track star who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and one of the greatest athletes of modern times, died of lung cancer yesterday at the University of Arizona Hospital in Tucson.
A sprinter, hurdler and long jumper of surpassing grace, Mr. Owens once held 11 world records. One of these marks stood for 25 years. Another stood for 40.
Each of his Olympic victories produced an Olympic record. All were won in a setting in which Adolf Hitler hoped to demonstrate the soundness of his belief in the superiority of the Aryan race and the efficacy of the Nazi doctrine of "strength through joy."
Later, it was widely reported that Mr. Owens, a black who was born into a family of sharecroppers in Oakville, Ala., had been snubbed by Hitler. But there was no snub as Hilter had been asked not to congratulate any winners.
But there was no doubt that the Fuehrer was angered by the young American's prowess and the Nazi press referred to Mr. Ownes and the nine other blacks on the 382-member U.S. teams as "the black auxiliaries." This had no apparent effect on the sports fans who crowded into the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium and greeted Mr. Owens' triumphs with waves of cheering.
Mr. Owens had to make his stand against radical prejudice in the United States.
"When I came back, after all the stories about Hitler and his 'snub,' I came back to my native country and I couldn't ride in the front of the bus," he once said.
"I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either."
Mr. Owens prevailed. He became a successful businessman, a "sports ambassador" for the State Department, and effective spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee and for the whole Olympic movement, and an inspiration to youngsters of all races as his athletic feats were recounted on television and radio and in newspapers and magazines.
At his death, President Carter issued a statement that said:
"Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and as a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans."
Mr. Owens also was honored by presidents before his death.
On Aug. 5, 1976, President Gerald R. Ford presented him with the Medal of Freedom at the White House.
In February 1979, Carter presented him with the Living Legends Award. The president said at that time:
"A young man who possibly didn't even realize the superb nature of his own capabilities went to the Olympics and performed in a way that I don't believe has ever been equalled since . . . . and since this superb achievement, he has continued in his own dedicated but modest way to inspire others to reach for greatness."
If Mr. Owens' performance at the Olympics became the standard by which later superstars were measured, it still did not equal what he did one afternoon a year before the Olympics.
In less than an hour on the afternoon of May 25, 1935, while a sophomore at Ohio State University, when he was known as the "Buckeye Bullet," Mr. Owens set three world records and tied a fourth. It was in a meet at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Despite a bad back, Mr. Owens equaled the world mark of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash. He then set new records in the long jump (26 feet, 8 1/2 inches), the 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds) and the 220-yard low hurdles (22.6).
The long jump record set that day was not surpassed until 1960, when Ralph Boston jumped 26 feet 9 1/4 inches in the Rome Olympics. Mr. Owens' longest-standing record was the 6.6-second mark he set in the indoor 60-meter dash in Madison Square Garden in 1935. That finally was broken by Cliff Outlin of Birmingham in a United States-Soviet Union dual meet in 1975. The new time was 6.4 seconds.
"Sure, I'm a little sad, it's like losing a member of the family," Mr. Owens said when informed of Outlin's feat. "I looked upon [my records] as part of history. I was proud to be involved in that history-making process, but I have nothing but great admiration for the kids coming up today."
Mr. Owens' Olympic victories were in the 100-meter dash (10.3 seconds), the 200 meters (20.7), the long jump (26 feet 5-5/16 inches) and in the 400-meter relay. Another leg of the relay was run by the late Ralph Metcalfe, who went on to become a congressman from Illinois. Mr. Metcalfe also finished second to Mr. Owens in the 100. f
The story that Hitler snubbed Mr. Owens apparently came about in this way:
One of the first events of the Olympics that year was the shot put and it was won by a German, Hans Woelike. It was Germany's first victory in track and field events since the modern games began in 1896 and Hitler directed that Woelike and the other medalists be brought to him for congratulations.
But the president of the International Olympic Committee, Count Henri de Baillet-ylatour of Belgium, told the Fuehrer that he had no business congratulating any of the athletes. Hitler heeded this admonition after later events and left the stadium each day without congratulating anyone. aAll of Mr. Owens' victories came after the count had spoken to Hitler.
The American said later, "I wasn't running against Hitler. I was running against the world."
James Cleveland Owens was born on Sept. 12, 1913, one of seven children of Henry and Emma Alexander Owens. His father called him "J. C." and the boy helped in the Alabama cotton fields until the family moved to Cleveland, when he was about 9.
When he went to school in Cleveland, a teacher asked the boy what his name was. "J. C." the lad replied. The teacher thought he said "Jesse" and Jesse was the name Mr. Owens used for the rest of his life.
He began to make a mark as a track phenomenon while still in high school and won a scholarship to Ohio State, where he helped support himself with various odd jobs. His coach there was Larry Snyder, who said yesterday that Mr. Owens "was the greatest by far. He was given an award as the greatest athlete of the half century. I would say that pretty much says it, wouldn't you?"
After the Olympics, Mr. Owens began a business career. At first he prospered. But then there was a period in which he was treated as a kind of curiosity. He ran against a race horse and ran demonstration races at other althetic events. He also toured with the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.
He later became a personnel official for the Ford Motor Co. and then sales director for a sporting goods company.
In more recent years he had been a public relations executive. In the last few months, he appeared frequently in a television ad for American Express.
He maintained his interest in the Olympics until the end of his life. He opposed President Carter's plan to boycott the summer Olympics in Moscow on the grounds that politics should be out of the games.
It was this aspect of Mr. Owens' life that others remembered yesterday in paying tibute to him.
"Owens was without a doubt the best known and most beloved Olympic champion all over the world," said Bob Paul, director of communications for the U.S. Olympics Committee. "He not only achieved greatness on the track but in his entire life."
Jack Kelly, the vice president of the USOC, said Mr. Owens had raised funds for the committee and would be remembered for "personifying the Olympic spirit."
Glenn Cunningham, the great miler and a teammate of Mr. Owens at the 1936 Olympics, said his friend "didn't try to grab money. He always tried to help others."
Gov. James A. Rhodes of Ohio said Mr. Owens was "the greatest athlete of our time."
Simon Wiesenthal, the well-known hunter of Nazi war criminals, proposed that an avenue in Berlin be named after Mr. Owens. Wiesenthal said he had made this proposal once before, but had been told by Berlin authorities that streets in that city are not named after living persons.
Mr. Owens' body was to lie in state in the rotunda of the State Capitol in Arizona. Gov. Bruce Babbitt ordered that flags in the state be flown at half staff in his honor.
Mr. Owens always credited athletics with giving him his start in life and the United States with giving him a chance to fulfill it.
"In what other country in the world could a poor black kid like me go all the places I've been, see all the things I've seen and make so many friends?" he once asked.
Survivors include his wife of 47 years, the former Ruth Solomon of Tucson, and three daughters.