By John Kerezy, eyeoncleveland.com founder & publisher
AUGUST 4 – A story that Jesse Owens often told after the Berlin Olympics was based on what happened to him when he was down to a last chance on this day in 1936. He’d already won gold in the 100-meter dash, and was also favored to win the long jump at the Games. But Owens had fouled in his first try in the preliminary round. On the second leap, he also saw the red flag indicating another foul. He’d stepped beyond the front edge of the take-off board.
Owens was discouraged, and doubts dominated his thoughts as he prepared for the third and final attempt. He’d traveled more than 5,000 miles from his home in Cleveland for this moment. If he didn’t qualify this time, he’d be eliminated.
Just as the announcer was calling his name for the last time, Owens said he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard a voice. “Jazze Owenz!”
Turning, Owens saw a smiling German competitor standing next to him. “What has taken your goat, Jazze Owenz?” the man asked. He was tall, blonde, and had a perfect athletic physique, the epitome of Adolph Hitler’s Aryan supremacy. A Nazi swastika adorned his track singlet.
“I Lutz Long,” he continued in broken English, introducing himself. “I think I know what is wrong with you. You are 100 percent when you jump. I the same. You cannot do halfway, but you are afraid you will foul again.”
“That’s right,” a startled Owens replied.
“I have an answer,” Long continued. “Same thing happened to me last year….”
Long advised Owens to simply remeasure his steps and begin his jump several inches from the back end of the take-off board, so Owens could give it his all without fear of another foul. Next, Long allegedly grabbed his own towel and placed it behind the board, marking the exact spot from which Owens should jump.
It worked. Owens took off on his last attempt, and easily qualified in the effort.
Afterwards, Owens says that the two talked more. Later in the day they and four others squared off in the long jump finals. Competitor after competitor was eliminated, until only two athletes remained: Owens and Long.
On Long’s next-to-last jump, he equaled an Owens previous mark and moved into a first place tie with a 25-feet, 9-inch effort. The Berlin crowd roared its approval. And the first person to congratulate him with a hug was Owens.
The American was next, and he outleapt his German competitor.
On his last attempt, Long fouled trying to best his new American friend.
Owens opted to jump one final time. Summoning all his speed and skill, he soared 26 feet, 5 1/4 inches for another Olympic record. And the first person to congratulate him was Lutz Long.
It was the heartfelt kind, far exceeding good sportsmanship. Long hugged Owens back, and arm-in-arm the two of them walked around a portion of the Olympic track. According to Owens, Long yelled “Jazze Owenz” to the crowd, and tens of thousands of Germans in joined in. The two remained side-by-side on the track, and posed together for dozens of photographs as well.
Once the competition concluded,* Owens and Long met again for dinner and drinks repeatedly in the evenings in the Olympic Village. They became friends, vowing to write to each other after Owens returned to the U.S. And they did so, even during World War II.
Lutz Long later was inducted into the German Army, and died fighting in 1943. One of the final letters which Long wrote went to Jesse Owens. And Owens always remembered the selflessness Long had exhibited in 1936.
“It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me,” Owens said afterward, describing their relationship. “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 Lutz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.”
There’s a lesson for all of us in what Lutz Long and Jesse Owens did in 1936, overcoming prejudice, hatred, and language boundaries to support each other and become friends. And they carried it out right under Hitler’s nose.
Who’s your supposed enemy?
What if you were just a bit selfless, and extended a hand of friendship to that person? Offered to get to know them better over a cup of coffee? You too just might find yourself rooting for their success.
We live in a world where all too often our reaction is to decry “the other side” in our communication. We assume the worst, many times without even trying to understand other points of view.
Long and Owens knew they were members of the same race, the human one. Even as they strived to outleap each other, their mutual respect also deepened.
Due to an act of selflessness, a white German and the Black son of an Alabama sharecropper who was raised in Cleveland in the 1920s and ‘30s were able to overcome a lot of obstacles and form a lasting friendship. That’s a lesson worth repeating for us all.
* Owens was unexpectedly called upon to be part of Team U.S.A’s 4 x 100-meter relay team on the last day of the Olympics, and he won a fourth gold medal in that event.
(In latter years, Owens told different versions of this story to reporters. This one was published in his 1978 autobiography, titled “Jesse”. While no contemporary news accounts corroborated Owens’ story, the New York Times reported that Owens and Long developed a Damon and Pythias-type friendship as a result of their competition. See the link below:
Here is a free download of a PDF file celebrating the centennial of Jesse Owens coming to Cleveland in 1922:
Here are links to two popular videos about Jesse Owens and Lutz Long:
Kerezy is an associate professor of Media and Journalism Studies at Cuyahoga Community College.