#70SportWays (66): Jess Owens and Luz Long, an unbelievable friendship
This is a story about two men and an impossible friendship in the name of sport during the Olympic Games in 1936 hosted by Germany, governed by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. We are talking about Jess Owens and Luz Long and their competition when Hitler’s well-known hatred of Jews and his disdain for non-white races was part of the atmosphere of the Games.
African American athlete Jesse 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 greatest acts of sportsmanship.
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.”
This story is a perfect example of the fundamental values of sport: fair competition, above all, and the ability to distinguish proper sporting rivalry from enmity, or even hatred. These are values which, despite the horror of those years, were clearly expressed.