In 1936 the Olympic Games were hosted by Germany, governed by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.
Hitler’s well-known hatred of Jews and his disdain for non-white races was part of the atmosphere of the Games and, to America’s most famous and accomplished African American athlete Jesse Owens, competing in a stadium filled with swastikas and “Heil Hitler’ straight-arm salutes to the German dictator was distressing, to say the least.*
Owens, who held the world record in the long jump, foot-faulted on his first two qualifying jumps. If he fouled again, he’d be eliminated. According to Owens, Luz Long, the only man who had a chance to beat Owens, introduced himself and suggested that Owens play it safe by making a mark a foot before the takeoff board to assure he could qualify. It worked, and Owens advanced to the finals to compete against Long.
This decision to help a competitor is still viewed as one of the great acts of sportsmanship but the fact that Long was Germany’s premier long-jumper and made the act even more extraordinary.
In Long’s first jump he set a new Olympic record, but Owens beat that jump, setting a new World Record. In the end, Owens won the gold medal and Long took the silver.
Though he knew it would not please Hitler, Long was the first to congratulate Owens. That’s sportsmanship. But Long went further. He embraced Owens and walked around the stadium with him arm-in-arm before the astonished German crowd. Later they posed together for pictures. That’s character.
Describing the event, Owens said, “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.” Though they never saw each other again, they kept in touch and as a soldier fighting for Germany in 1942, Long wrote this letter to Owens:
My heart is telling me that this is perhaps the last letter of my life. If that is so, I beg one thing from you. When the war is over, please go to Germany, find my son and tell him about his father. Tell him about the times when war did not separate us and tell him that things can be different between men in this world. Your brother, Luz.
Luz Long died from battle wounds a year later at age 30. In 1951, Jesse Owens kept his promise and found Long’s son in war-torn German. He later said that what he valued the most from Olympic experience had been his friendship with Luz Long.
Check out these fascinating videos of Owens’ 1936 performance.
*At the Olympic Games it was widely known that Hitler intensely hated everyone of Jewish descent and believed that all people of color were inferior to his Aryan Master Race. The systematic extermination of six million Jewish men, women, and children, and many thousand Gypsies and homosexuals, began five years later, in 1941.