He was born in Oakville, Alabama and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He was given the name Jesse by a Cleveland teacher who did not understand his accent when he said his initials were J.C.
In a span of 45 minutes on May 25, 1935 at the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he set world records in the long jump, 220-yard dash, and the 220-yard low hurdles and tied the record for the 100-yard dash.
He won gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympics in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, long jump, and on August 9, 1936 he won his fourth gold medal of the games as a member of the 4 x 100-meter relay team. This made him the first American to win four medals in one Olympics and this feat was not equalled until Carl Lewis won four medals in the 1984 Summer Olympics.
The Olympic victories had particular savor because Adolf Hitler had intended to use the games to promote "Aryan superiority". A persistent myth has grown up that Hitler, who had criticized African-American athletes as "black auxiliaries" and "non-humans", was in the stadium for some of Owens' events but had refused to acknowledge him after his remarkable performances. In fact Hitler was absent on the days in question and the German athletes and German public welcomed and praised Owens, just like everyone else.
He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 by Gerald Ford and the Medal of Honor by George H. W. Bush posthumously on March 28, 1990. In 1984, a street in Berlin was renamed in his honor. All his life he attributed his career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his junior-high track coach, who had picked him off the playground and put him on the track team. (See Harrison Dillard, a Cleveland athlete inspired by Owens.)