Excellence in Motion

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Sports  |  House: Booksie Classic

German long jumper Luz Long helping American Jesse Owens win gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Luz Long

Submitted: December 02, 2019

Reads: 60

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Submitted: December 02, 2019



Jesse Owens was recognised in his lifetime as "perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history." At the 1935 Big Ben track meet in Michigan, he set three world records and tied another one, all in less than an hour. It is a feat that has never been equalled and has been described as "the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport." The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin would be his finest hour. When he collected his fourth gold medal in the space of seven days as part of the United States 4×100-metres relay team, he completed an achievement that still stands as an unparalleled indicator of sporting excellence.

But the Olympic legacy of Jesse Owens extended far beyond his athletic triumph. At the time, he was the 22-year-old son of Alabama tenant farmers and grandson of slaves, so just competing in Berlin was a most intimidating environment. The 1936 Olympics was Adolf Hitler's vehicle to promote his government's ideals of racial supremacy and antisemitism. The Nazi regime's ideology was building toward its full, awful intensity and the instigator himself was a regular spectator in the Olympic stadium. With party propaganda portraying Negroes as "black auxiliaries," Hitler became "highly annoyed" by Owens' series of victories.

Hitler decreed that people with a background "from the jungle" were primitive, had stronger physiques than civilised whites and should be excluded from future Olympic Games. So for Owens to maintain his peak performance over an entire week in such an ugly moral environment was a mark of his courage and determination. Despite some quality opposition, he began by winning the 100-metres and also won the 200-metres with relative ease. His final track gold in the sprint relay was marred by a controversy which was a reminder of the unpleasant themes that were never entirely absent from the Berlin Games.

On the morning of the first heats, two Jewish athletes Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman, were dropped from the United States relay team. It was thought that the U.S. Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage, had adjusted the team to avoid further aggravating the Führer's already emotional response to the success of Jesse Owens. It was an episode that sadly diminished the lustre of his final flourish, but Owens' personal story ultimately demonstrated the true Olympic spirit. Far from the jingoistic ideals being trumpeted by Hitler, it was his second gold medal that instead showed how sport can bring the human family together.

On 4 August 1936, the day before his 200-metres victory, Owens received something he subsequently claimed that he prized more than anything that hung around his neck during those seven days of glory: the friendship of German long jumper Luz Long. At a glance, the tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed Long personified Hitler's Aryan ideal. He arrived at the Berlin Games as the European record holder in the long jump and was eager to compete for the first time against Jesse Owens, who held the world record. The sight of Long taking prodigious leaps in practice must have been an ominous sign for the American.

The qualifying distance for the long jump finals was 7.15 metres, which Luz Long met and exceeded with ease. It should hardly have been a stretch for his strongest competitor Jesse Owens, who had jumped 8.13 metres before. Still dressed in his tracksuit, he took a practice run down the approach and leapt into the pit. It was a foul jump and he was stunned when the officials counted it as the first of his three attempts to qualify. Whether it was his own error or intentional malice by the judges, Owens was flustered and fouled on his second effort. Knowing he could be eliminated from the competition, he sat dejectedly on the field.

If Owens had been eliminated, Long would almost certainly have gone on to win gold. It would have pleased Hitler immensely if he had, but the athlete didn't share the racist views of his county's leaders. Seeing Owens' obvious anxiety, Long approached him and introduced himself in English. "Glad to meet you," said Owens tentatively and asked the German how he was. "I'm fine," replied Long. "The question is, how are you?" When Owens asked him what he meant, Long proudly displayed his knowledge of American slang. "Something must be eating you," he said. "You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed."

Long then reminded Owens that the qualifying distance was only 7.15 metres, and it was well within his range. He suggested that, for his final jump, he move his mark back to ensure he took off well short of the board and didn't foul for a third time. He even helped his rival measure out the best point from which to make the jump. Owens agreed with the advice and moved his initial marker back by half a metre before sprinting in and taking off uninhibitedly. After a careful measurement in the sand, there were just ten centimetres to spare, but he had qualified for the final to be held later that afternoon.

"You see?" Long reportedly called out to Owens after he had completed his successful qualifying jump. "That's how easy it is." Owens then shook Long's hand and thanked him with the only German word he knew: "Danke." Soon after this, a famous photo was taken by German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl of the two rivals relaxing together on the field of the stadium. It depicts the young men enjoying each other's company in the bonds of a new friendship. Long doesn't seem in the least bit concerned that his noble gesture was seen as an outrage by Hitler and his Nazi cohorts.

The final was an epic battle for the gold medal, where the jumpers matched or exceeded the Olympic record five times. With his newfound confidence, it was Owens who took the first-round lead with a jump of 7.74 metres. In the second round, Long created a huge roar of approval from the stadium crowd when he matched that mark, but the American responded with 7.87 metres. The German then caused another uproar by matching Owens for a second time on his fifth and penultimate jump. This time the jubilation included Hitler and other leading members of the Nazi party in an official tribune.


The fervour around the arena hadn't subsided by the time Jesse Owens prepared to respond. In another wonderfully sporting gesture, Luz Long raised both his arms in an effort to calm the crowd. He apparently even cast a "furtive" glance in the direction of his nation's unruly rulers to try and give his rival a fair opportunity. Owens gratefully took his chance and ran gracefully down the runway before leaping 7.94 metres and reasserting his superiority. In his sixth and final attempt, Long could not improve on his best and Owens had won the gold. From where he was sitting, a disgusted Adolf Hitler immediately rose and left the stadium.

In leaving when he did, Hitler missed the American's concluding effort of 8.06 metres. "That business with Hitler didn't bother me," Owens wrote later. "I didn't go there to shake hands. What I remember most was the friendship I struck up with Luz Long. He was my strongest rival, yet it was he who advised me to adjust my run-up in the qualifying round and thereby helped me to win." Long was the first to congratulate Owens on his win. The two posed for photos together before walking arm in arm to the dressing room, musing to one another about fame, patriotism and friendship.

Long was later reprimanded by Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, for his actions. According to the athlete's mother, Hess ordered her son to "never embrace a negro again." A week after their long jump dual, Long gave his own version of the events in a newspaper story entitled, "My Battle with Owens." "I couldn't help myself," he wrote. "I ran up to him, and I was the first to embrace and congratulate him. He responded by saying: 'You forced me to give my best!'" As a black man, Owens was credited with "single-handedly crushing Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy," but he would be the first to acknowledge that he did have some help.

Owens paid tribute to the courage that Long displayed in befriending him as he did in front of Hitler. There have been suggestions that Owens may have exaggerated the significance of Long's intervention but it doesn't detract from his extraordinary act of sportsmanship. And there is also no doubt about the warmth of the friendship between the two men. Speaking about the congratulations he received from his rival, Owens said: "You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the twenty-four karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment."

The two athletes corresponded with each other regularly until Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. Long served in the German army and was killed during the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943. "The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again," Owens reflected. "He was killed in World War II." In his final letter, Long asked Owens to contact his son Kai and tell him "what times were like when we were not separated by war." "Tell him," Long continued, "how things can be between men on this earth." Owens honoured the request of his friend and continued to correspond with Kai and then served as best man at his wedding.

In 1964, the Pierre de Coubertin medal was inaugurated in honour of the International Olympic Committee founder. This special decoration is given to those who exemplify the spirit of sportsmanship or have offered exceptional service to the Olympic movement. It is widely considered as one of the noblest honours in sport. Since its creation, just 26 people have received the Coubertin medal, with the first recipient medal being Italian bobsledder Eugenio Monti. At the same time, the committee appropriately decided to award Luz Long the medal posthumously, and his name sits on top of this esteemed list.

After his athletic career, Jesse Owens took up smoking and died of lung cancer on 31 March 1980. Four years later, Carl Lewis matched his haul of medals at the Los Angeles Olympics but the achievement of Owens will always have a far deeper resonance. He gave the lie to Nazi ideology where it was being nurtured under the gaze of its creator. After his death, American president Jimmy Carter paid the following tribute to Owens: "Perhaps no athlete better symbolised the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry." And no athlete helped him do that more than his friend, Carl Ludwig "Luz" Long.

© Copyright 2019 Dave Tomlinson. All rights reserved.


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