“Buckeye Bullet”

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was arguably one of the greatest Olympians of all time.  At the Berlin Games in 1936, Owens won four gold medals in track and field making him the most successful athlete of those Games.  Unfortunately, upon his return to the United States, Owens continued to face racial intolerance – he was even left off the guest list to the White House for a reception honoring the 1936 U.S. Olympians.  In August 1976, in an East Garden ceremony at the White House, President Ford presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Owens. 

President Gerald Ford and Jesse Owens during the August 5, 1976, presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Garden of the White House.
B0973-14 / NAID: 7062576
Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

One year before Owens’ impressive feat at the Berlin Olympics, a young Jerry Ford watched on as Owens (nicknamed the “Buckeye Bullet”) broke three world records and tied a fourth in less than one hour at a Big 10 track meet in Ann Arbor.  As President Ford would recall before presenting the Medal of Freedom: “[Owens’] performance that day [in May 1935] in the broad jump – 26 feet, 8 1⁄4 inches – was not equaled for 25 years.  It was a triumph that all of us will remember.”

White House Press Releases, Box 29.
Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library 

Ford presented Owens with the Medal of Freedom as part of a planned event with the U.S. Olympic Committee and athletes, including Howard Cosell and “Sugar” Ray Leonard.  For a full listing of all who attended, see “Appendix C” of the President’s Daily Diary from that day.

Author: Brooke Clement