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Public Papers - 1990

Remarks at the Posthumous Presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to Jesse Owens

1990-03-28

The President. Well, this is so nice. And I was just telling Mrs. Owens I'm sorry Barbara is not here and that we view this as a very special occasion. But to Congressman Stokes and Senator Metzenbaum and then friends and teammates of the legendary Jesse Owens, welcome, all of you, to the White House.

It's my pleasure to welcome you here to the White House to honor a man who really honored his own nation -- Olympic hero and an American hero every day of his life. Jesse Owens was born with the gift of burning speed, and he took that God-given talent and developed it through years of training. And he was always the fastest. One afternoon in 1935 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he set three world records and tied a fourth -- all in 45 minutes. You talk about a young guy in a hurry -- well, I think maybe that was -- [laughter] -- he was the epitome of that.

As an 18-year-old in 1933, he won the city of Cleveland championship -- the 100-yard dash in 9.4, tying the world record while still in high school. He burst onto the world scene in 1936, and I think every American that studies history remembers this -- the 1936 Olympics, Hitler's Olympic games, the last Olympics before the outbreak of the Second World War. And the Berlin games were to be the showcase of Hitler's theories on the superiority of the master race until this 23-year-old kid named Jesse Owens dashed to victory in the 100-, the 200-, and the 400-meter relay. It was an unrivaled athletic triumph. But more than that, it really was a triumph for all humanity.

And Jesse Owens returned to this nation a hero, a household name, billed as the fastest man on Earth. But it's what he did after the spectacular performance of the Berlin games that earned him the enduring gratitude of all Americans. Jesse dedicated himself to upholding the Olympic ideal of sportsmanship and the American ideals of fairplay, hard work, and open competition.

And I know that his friend and fellow Clevelander, Harrison Dillard -- now, which is Harrison? Right here, right behind you -- Harrison Dillard, right here today. In 1941, at the Ohio State high school track championship, Harrison's idol, Jesse Owens -- you correct me if I'm wrong, now -- gave him a new pair of track shoes. And that day, Harrison Dillard won two State titles in those new shoes. And 7 years later, as we all remember, he brought home the gold medal at the 1948 Olympics in Jesse's event, that 100-meter dash, in the first games held since those Berlin games.

Jesse's example and influence extended to Olympians like Harrison Dillard and to all other athletes across the country, and he became a special ambassador for sports -- a man who taught the ideals that I just mentioned were the key to success not just on the athletic field but in the game of life. And that legacy lives today through the Jesse Owens Games, a playground olympics open to kids from 8 to 15 years old all across our country; through the Jesse Owens International Trophy Award, presented each year to the best amateur athlete in America; and of course, through the Jesse Owens Foundation, which enables talented young people who can't afford college to fulfill that dream and get a degree. And I know it's a point of pride to Ruth Owens that the Jesse Owens Scholarships are awarded without regard to race, creed, or color.

And it's that legacy that we celebrate here today. And we remember Jesse Owens not only as the first athlete in Olympic history to win four gold medals. Today, 10 years since the passing of this great hero, it's my honor to add to Jesse Owens' collection a fifth gold medal -- this one, as Ruth Owens said on Capitol Hill, for his humanitarian contributions in the race of life.

Mrs. Owens, it is with great pride and in honor of your late husband and his lasting achievements that I present to you this Congressional Gold Medal, the Jesse Owens Congressional Gold Medal. And we're just delighted you came here to receive it.

Mrs. Owens. Mr. President, thank you so very much for this honor. Like your predecessors, President Ford, President Carter, who have recognized Jesse for his many contributions. Jesse achieved the unique distinction of being a legend in his own time. Despite the many honors, his greatest satisfaction came from his work with youth. Jesse's work with youth is now carried on through, as you mentioned, the Jesse Owens Foundation, the ARCO [Atlantic Richfield Co.] Jesse Owens Games, and the International Amateur Athletic Association, spearheaded by Herb Douglas.

On behalf of the youth he still inspires, and on behalf of my family, we thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:50 a.m. in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.

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