By Roy Exum
When I was in elementary school, there was an article in “Boys Life” magazine that introduced me to Jesse Owens, the great Olympic athlete who was far-and-away my favorite of all my childhood heroes. You’ll remember Hitler said Jesse was a member of the “United States Negro Auxiliary” at the 1936 Olympic Games because blacks were too inferior to be on the real U.S. team. You’ll also remember Jesse then won four gold medals in a silent answer to ‘der Fuhrer’ that was heard around the world and has not been forgotten to this day.
I’ve read reams about Jesse. They held a ticker-tape parade for him down NYC’s Broadway on his return to the United States which was culminated by a lavish victory banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria. Between the parade and his seat at the head table, Jesse had to ride the service elevator because the regular lifts were “white only.” Curiously, that doesn’t make me nearly as mad as it does grateful because such human atrocity made Owens one of our greatest warriors against racism, his example sterling against the hollow words of others.
INSIDE THE OLYMPIC STADIUM IN BERLIN, AUGUST 4, 1936
The qualifying distance was 7.15m, hardly a stretch for the man who had jumped 8.13m but, having won his early morning 200m qualifying round in an Olympic record of 21.1sec, Owens failed to see the judges raising their flags to indicate the start of competition. Still in his tracksuit, he took a practice run down the approach and into the pit, only to see officials indicating that this had counted as the first of his three efforts. He fouled on his next attempt. This left him with only one remaining jump to ensure that he reached the final later in the day.
At this point, according to Owens, the embodiment of the Aryan ideal sauntered up to him and introduced himself in English. David Wallechinsky, in his standard work, The Complete Book of the Olympics, reports the subsequent conversation thus. “Glad to meet you,” said Owens tentatively. “How are you?” “I’m fine,” replied Lutz Long. “The question is, how are you?”
“What do you mean?” asked Owens.
“Something must be eating you,” said Long, proud to display his knowledge of American slang. “You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed.”
Then, apparently, Long suggested that, as the qualifying distance was only 7.15m, Owens should shift his mark back to ensure that he took off well short of the board and remained clear of any possibility of fouling again.
Owens complied, retracting the initial marker for his run-up by a foot and a half before taking off uninhibitedly to qualify with just half a centimeter to spare.
When the final was held later that afternoon, Owens took a first round lead with 7.74m. In the second round, generating a deep roar of approval within the Olympic stadium, Long matched that mark, only for the American to respond with 7.87m. But on his fifth and penultimate attempt, the German created general uproar, and jubilation in an official tribune that contained not just Hitler but Goebbels, Goering, Hess and Himmler, by matching Owens again.
As Owens prepared to respond, it was his German opponent who raised both arms in the air as if to still the ferment, casting what Parienté described as a “furtive” glance towards his nation’s unruly rulers.
Now Owens embraced his opportunity, fluent on the runway, his feet pattering lightly before a take-off that re-established his superiority as he landed at 7.94m. With his sixth and final attempt, Long could not improve on his best. Hitler immediately rose and left the stadium – missing the American’s concluding effort: 8.06m.
“That business with Hitler didn’t bother me,” Owens later wrote. “I didn’t go there to shake hands. What I remember most was the friendship I struck up with Lutz 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.”
The tall, doomed German was the first to congratulate Owens in his moment of victory.
“You can melt down all the medals and cups I have,” Owens wrote later. “And they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Lutz Long at that moment.”
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At the close of the Berlin Olympics, Hitler gave every Germany Olympic athlete immunity from the war … except one — Lutz Long. But the friendship between Lutz and Jesse remained strong. When Hitler invaded Poland, the letters from Lutz Long stopped … all but one.
Over a year after it was originally mailed, Jesse received this letter from his friend Lutz, who had been in North Africa at the time. His friend needed a particular favor, just as you are going to need a Kleenex …
* * *
“I KNOW IT IS NEVER BY CHANCE WE COME TOGETHER … “
(This is a transcript of a letter written by Lutz Long to Jesse Owens)
I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father.
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.
If you do this something for me, this thing that I need the most to know will be done, I do something for you, now. I tell you something I know you want to hear. And it is true.
That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer.
Then I did not know how I know. Now I do. I know it is never by chance that we come together. I come to you that hour in 1936 for purpose more than der Berliner Olympiade.
And you, I believe, will read this letter, while it should not be possible to reach you ever, for purpose more even than our friendship.
I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I have to tell you, Jesse.
I think I might believe in God.
And I pray to him that, even while it should not be possible for this to reach you ever, these words I write will still be read by you.
(NOTE: After the surrender of Germany and the end of World War II, Jesse Owens returned to Germany and found Lutz Long’s son, Karl. They too became friends, and Jesse Owens was the Best Man at Karl Long’s wedding.)
* * *
Carl Ludwig “Lu(t)z” Long served in the German army during World War II, having the rank of Obergefreiter. During the Allied invasion of Sicily, Long was severely wounded in action and died in a British field hospital on 14 July 1943. He was 30 years old. He was buried in the war cemetery of Motta Sant’Anastasia, in Sicily.
Jesse Owens barely scraped by after returning to the United States but then, after some tumultuous years, excelled in public relations in Tucson, AZ, and was acclaimed as a motivation speaker. He died in 1960 from lung cancer. He was 66 years old. He is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago’s South Side. His parting advice: “Find the good. It’s all around you. Find it, showcase it and you’ll start believing in it.”