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Jesse Owens raced a horse in Bismarck

Jesse Owens raced a horse in Bismarck


Jesse Owens lost a race in North Dakota in 1945. Because few humans could rival Owens on the racetrack, he lost the 150-yard event in Bismarck to a race horse.

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.

Owens was born Sept. 12, 1913, in Oakville, Ala., to Henry and Mary Emma Owens. When he was 9 years old, he moved with his family to Cleveland. 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 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.

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 Fifth 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 receiving 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, he lost his amateur status. 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. 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 the 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.

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.

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, it was almost 100 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 Eisenhower named him Ambassador of Sports.

Owens toured the country as a polished motivational speaker. 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. Owens died on March 31, 1980.

(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen at


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