Owens on a 1971 U.A.E. stamp. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)
Despite his remarkable achievements, Owens received little respect from the public. He later remarked, “Although I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.” Today, he would get his face on a Wheaties box, but immediately after his wins in Germany, manager Avery Brundage put him on a grueling racing schedule with little pay. When Owens fired Brundage to strike out on his own, his ex-manager convinced the A.A.U. to revoke Owens’s membership, effectively banishing him from professional racing for good. Owens ran his last race only a few months after his Olympic wins.
With his athletic career dead in the water, Owens supported himself by working at gas stations, as a janitor, and finally opening a dry cleaning business. Occasionally, he ran against amateurs or even animals, explaining that “people say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.” Although he never made much money from his talent, he did find work in giving inspirational speeches, coaching, and mentoring young people. He died of lung cancer on March 31, 1980 at the age of 66.