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Jesse Owens and Luz Long

As a 22-year-old black man from Alabama competing against Nazis in Berlin, Jesse Owens was perhaps the quintessential definition of an underdog. A record-breaking track star in America, Owens’ had all eyes on him at the 1936 Olympics. The whole world was anxious to see if the young Jesse Owens would take on Hitler’s master race and triumph or be defeated. Although it only would have taken him winning one gold medal to prove to Hitler that the Aryans were not a superior race of humans, Owens’ really hammered the point home by winning four. In addition to Owens’ stunning athleticism the young athlete was also a man of strong character, as is evidenced by his unlikely friendship with Luz Long. The bond forged between an Aryan German and an African American was perhaps more amazing than Owens’ performance in the long-jump.[1]

Long and Owens first met during the preliminary trials for the long-jump. In order to qualify for the semi-finals, the athletes would need to jump a distance of 23 ½ feet within the allotted three tries. This should have been a piece of cake for Owens, who regularly jumped distances of 25 feet or more, but in a foreign country competing against Nazis Owens’ subconscious got the best of him. On his first try, Owens casually strolled through the sand pit that he would be jumping into to get a warm-up feel of what to expect. A common practice in America, this action was immediately flagged as a foul under the strict German rules. Shaken but still determined, Jesse prepared himself to jump again for his second try. A byproduct of overthinking, Owens landed the jump without fouling but did not reach the qualifying distance of 23 ½ feet. For someone who had once jumped almost 27 feet, this second failure was unbelievably embarrassing. With only one try left, Owens was approached by his German competitor Luz Long. In a spectacular display of sportsmanship, Long gave Owens a small pep talk and encouraged him to jump far before the line so he would not be worried about fouling. He reminded Owens that even if he jumped a foot too early he should still be able to qualify with his eyes closed. Taking this to heart, Owens relaxed and sprinted off to take his final jump. As he bounded towards the sand pit, Owens sprang into the air a foot before the foul line and sailed into the air. On his third and final try, Owens jumped a distance of 25 feet allowing him to successfully qualify for the Olympic semi-finals.[2]

Jesse Owens never forgot the favor Luz Long did for him that day, and the two remained friends even after the 1936 Olympics ended. In 1955 when Owens was interviewed by Edward R. Murrow for Person to Person, he was asked what memories he had from those fateful Olympics. Owens replied, “I remember a boy that I competed against in the broad jump—a boy with whom I built a friendship—and we corresponded for a number of years, and then the war broke out, and I didn’t hear any more from him at all.”[3] The “boy” Owens was referring to was no other than Luz Long. Tragically, Long was drafted by the German armed forces during WWII and died in 1943 during the Allied invasion of Sicily. One of his last letters to Jesse before deploying remains a poignant message for all of humanity. It reads, in part:

“My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is a something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth.”[4]

Two souvenirs from these historical Olympics reside in the Mercury Collection. A blue German book entitled Olympia 1936 is a propagandized look into the Berlin Olympics, which surprisingly highlights Jesse Owens quite prominently. The book even contains a rare photograph of Jesse Owens and Luz Long lounging side-by-side and appearing as friends. Equally as rare are these two pages of autographs from gold medal winners. The German phrase at the top of the first page translates to “We fought for the gold medal”. This statement is immediately followed by numerous signatures in languages from English to Mandarin to Arabic. Jesse Owens’ autograph is featured prominently at the top of the second page alongside a note of which events he won gold in. Although Owens won four gold medals, only three events are listed next to his signature: 100-meter sprint, 200-meter sprint, and the broad jump. Owens also won a gold medal for the 4 x 100-meter relay, but since that was the last medal he won during the Olympics he may have simply signed this autograph before competing in that final event. Missing from these pages of autographs is Luz Long, who only managed to take home a silver medal for Germany. Luz Long placed second to Jesse Owens in the long jump, the very event Owens may not have even qualified for if it had not been for the helpful advice of his unlikely German friend.

Sources:

[1] Schaap, Jeremy. Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics. Harcourt. Houghton Mifflin. 2015. p. 15-17.

[2] Schaap, p. 226-231.

[3] Schaap, p. 15-17.

[4] “Letter from Luz Long to Jesse Owens”. ca. 1942. Letters of Note. Web. http://www.lettersofnote.com/2016/08/tell-him-about-his-father.html.

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