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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published April 27 2013

Eriksmoen: ‘World’s Fastest Man’ lost race in North Dakota in 1945

"The World’s Fastest Man" lost a race in North Dakota in 1945. Because few humans could rival Jesse Owens on the racetrack, he lost the 150-yard event in Bismarck to a racehorse.

At the 1936 Olympics, he brought pride to America and shattered Adolf Hitler’s claim of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals in track and field. However, racism existed in America, and there were no endorsements and very few meaningful job opportunities for Owens, an African American. He found that he needed to turn to carnival-like gimmicks to earn a living.

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was born September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Ala., to Henry and Mary Emma Owens. When he was 9 years old, he moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio. While attending junior high school, Owens’ track coach first realized the potential of his running ability and began to nurture it. In high school, he tied the world record in the 100-yard dash and the long jump.

After graduation, Owens attended Ohio State University. He did not receive a scholarship and had to work part-time jobs to pay for school. Since his employment was in the evenings, he practiced in the mornings. Because he was African-American, he had to live off campus.

When Owens traveled to compete in events, he was forced to eat and sleep at “blacks-only” restaurants and hotels. While at college, he won a record eight individual NCAA track and field championships. On May 25, 1935, at Ann Arbor, Mich., Owens set three world records and tied for a fourth in less than two hours.

In the summer of 1936, Owens arrived in Berlin, Germany, to compete in the Olympics. Despite the fact that Hitler promoted Aryan racial superiority and depicted ethnic Africans as “inferior,” Owens, for the first time, was able to eat at the same restaurants and stay at the same hotel as his white counterparts. On Aug. 4, he won in the 100-meter sprint. The next day, he was first in the long jump, and the following day, Owens won the 200-meter sprint. Those were the only events scheduled for him, but when the German government requested that a couple of Jewish athletes be removed from the “4 x 100-meter relay team,” Owens was named as one of the replacements, and the team won the event on Aug. 9. He walked away with four gold medals, a record that stood until 1984.

Owens returned to the U.S. a hero, although still a second-class citizen. He was given a ticker-tape parade down 5th Avenue in New York City but had to use the freight elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria to attend his reception. Because of his fame, Owens began booking speaking engagements and was asked to campaign for the election of Alf Landon for president. He accepted because he felt hurt that he did not receive a congratulatory letter from President Franklin Roosevelt. He also did not receive an invitation to the White House, which was a common practice for white sports heroes.

When it was learned that Owens often received compensation for his talks and was given $10,000 from the Republican Party, “United States athletic officials were furious and withdrew his amateur status, ending his career immediately.” He invested much of his money in a Cleveland dry cleaning establishment that soon went out of business. After it became known that Owens did not pay taxes in 1936, the Internal Revenue Service filed suit against him, and he was forced to file for bankruptcy.

Owens struggled financially. He was the greatest runner this country ever witnessed, but running was not a paying sport. “He tried to make a living as a sports promoter, essentially an entertainer.” Owens toured the country putting on exhibits where he would give local sprinters a head start, up to 20 yards, and defeat them in a 100-yard dash. He later had the idea of running against racehorses. Owens reasoned that thoroughbred horses were generally high-strung, and if the person with the starting gun stood close to the horse, the thoroughbred would be startled, causing Owens to get a good head start. His strategy worked, and Owens won almost all of the time.

In 1943, Owens was hired by the Ford Motor Company in their public relations department.

Much of his work involved promoting the company by touring the continent, appearing at semipro baseball games, where he would race against the fastest players on each team. The ballplayers would run 100 yards on a clear track, whereas Owens would have to jump over three hurdles on his way to the finish line.

By the summer of 1945, World War II was drawing to a close with the surrender of Germany, and Owens was looking to open his own sporting goods store in Detroit. He told a reporter, “After the Japs have been licked, sports will boom to unprecedented heights and thus the demand for athletic equipment will be terrific.” To increase attendance at the baseball games, he decided he would again race against horses. His plan worked well when he ran his first race against a horse in Winnipeg on July 13.

After winning the race, Owens scheduled an event for Bismarck, at the ballpark, on July 22. He knew the attendance would be high because the baseball game was between the bearded House of David and the Harlem Globetrotters. The manager of the Harlem team was the legendary Ted “Double-Duty” Radcliffe, who was also scheduled to pitch against the House of David.

Radcliffe was well-known in the area. He was the manager, catcher and star pitcher for the Jamestown Red Sox in 1934. In 1935, he joined the Bismarck Churchills, who went on to win the National Semipro Baseball Championship that year.

Not only would Owens compete against the racehorse, Prince Martin, but he would also run against the fastest players of the two teams. On July 22, he became concerned as he watched the temperature rise. At the end of the fifth inning, the starting time for his races, “the temperature was almost 100 degrees in the shade.” Owens easily won his race against the ball players, but Prince Martin beat the exhausted sprinter.

By the 1950s, opportunities began to open up for Owens. In 1953, he was appointed to the Illinois State Athletic Commission, and in 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower named him “Ambassador of Sports.” Owens toured the country as a polished motivational speaker and “began a lucrative association with the Atlantic Richfield Company.” In 1974 he was inducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame, and in 1976, President Gerald Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Jesse Owens died on March 31, 1980.

Concerning the Bismarck event, I would like to thank Keith Norman for alerting me to it and Jim Davis for his research.

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.