Tall, blond, and blue-eyed, the long jumper Luz Long was the prototype athlete that Adolf Hitler needed to prove his thesis on the supremacy of the Aryan race. The 1936 Olympic Games were being held in Berlin and the event was ideal for German athletes to show the world the superiority of their privileged genes. However, Long’s genes only caught up with him to win the silver medal, behind American champion Jesse Owens. In the eyes of the Nazi leaders, losing the gold was not the worst sin Long committed that day.
Hitler’s objective in Berlin was twofold. On the one hand, to prove to the world the ability of Nazi Germany to organize the most lavish Olympic Games in history. On the other, to demonstrate the athletic superiority of the Aryan race. The first purpose was achieved, with the complicity of the IOC. The German government turned over the event, managed to hide the sordidness of the regime for two weeks and transmitted to the world, with the invaluable help of Goebbels propaganda, the image of a happy, modern, prosperous and enterprising country. The event was later embellished on celluloid by director and propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, a filmmaker of undeniable talent, albeit this time at the service of a vile cause.
The success of the second objective is more doubtful. Although Germany dominated the medal table with 89 metals, Jewish athletes of different nationalities won several medals to the discomfort of the Nazi regime. But it was the black athletes who caused the leaders of the Third Reich the most headaches. Especially athlete Jesse Owens. From his box of honor, Hitler had to witness how an Alabama-born black man surpassed all his white rivals and became the undisputed king of the Games, winning four gold medals in athletics.
Fellowship and dignity
On the third day of the athletics competition the long jump was disputed, with Owens, world record holder, as the top favorite. The day before he had already won his first gold in the 100 meter dash and that same day he was running the 200 series. His most prominent opponent in the longitude pit was the German Carl Ludwig Long, better known as Luz Long, who had the European record. One was black, athletic and stretchy; the other, blond, tall and elegant. Their techniques were different and so were their worlds.
The qualifying test in the morning began with Long’s Olympic record in the first jump, which guaranteed him a pass to the final that took place in the afternoon. Meanwhile, Owens made two voids on his first attempts, coming to the brink of elimination. He had only one chance to reach the minimum mark of 7.15 meters and qualify for the final. He could not fail. It was then that Luz Long, his Aryan competitor, his most dangerous opponent, approached him, introduced himself and they had a brief exchange of words.
The German suggested to Owens that he should not seek the leap of his life at every attempt. In Long’s opinion, the Alabama player should forget about adjusting the take as much and be more conservative on the third jump, leaving a reasonable distance between the board and his foot. The American accepted the advice and on his third attempt he went up to 7.64 meters. The conversation was revealed years later by Jesse Owens himself in a talk with Long’s son, collected in the documentary ‘Jesse Owens returns to Berlin’.
A hug for equality
In the final they had an attractive contest for gold, both breaking the Olympic record several times. Luz Long kept up with Owens, forcing the American to jump further on each attempt, but in the last two jumps Owens showed his superiority. The German was an extraordinary jumper, the best in Europe at the time and probably in the world had Jesse Owens not existed, but the American was simply on another level.
With the competition over, Long walked over to Owens to congratulate him with a hug. Both celebrated their respective medals by taking a lap of honor around the stadium together. The fraternity between a Negro from Alabama and a blond from Leipzig, in front of the Nazi chieftains, was more eloquent than any speech for equality that could be delivered. “He had a lot of courage in fraternizing with me in front of Hitler,” Owens would recall. “You could melt all the medals and cups that I won, and they would be worth nothing compared to the 24-karat friendship I made with Luz Long at that time.”
The many medals won by black athletes stirred a Games designed to demonstrate Aryan superiority. Goebbels described these victories in his diaries as “a disgrace.” According to him, “the white race should be ashamed” to be defeated in this way. Hitler, who left the stadium without shaking Owens’ hand, turned the argument around and resorted to contempt. For him, black athletes were basically animals Their physical superiority only proved that they were savages who should not have a place in future Olympics.
The beginning of a beautiful friendship
The friendship between Owens and Long did not die in Berlin. Back home, the two maintained an epistolary relationship while their lives continued their course. Owens saw how short-lived glory was for a black athlete in America in 1936. “When I got back to my country, after all the Hitler stories, I couldn’t get in the front of the bus. back door, “he said later. “I was not invited to shake Hitler’s hand, but neither was I invited to the White House to shake my president’s hand.” Roosevelt didn’t even send him a congratulatory message.
Long was drafted by Germany to fight in World War II. In his last letter to Owens, written from the front, he asked him if something happened to contact his son in Germany and tell him about his father, his achievements and his life. The letter was sadly prophetic. Shortly after, during the Allied invasion of the island of Sicily, Long was wounded and died four days later. Jesse Owens kept his promise and traveled to Germany to meet with Kai Long. The meeting between the two appears in the aforementioned documentary ‘Jesse Owens returns to Berlin’, which was released in 1966. The American always maintained contact with Luz Long’s family and accepted Kai Long’s request to act as best man at their wedding.
In 1964, posthumously, Luz Long was the first athlete to be awarded the Coubertin Medal, an award established to distinguish those athletes whose behavior, during the development of their Olympic activity, exemplarily reflects sportsmanship.
Some consider the story of the conversation leading up to the third jump in the rankings to be apocryphal, a fantasy Owens told Long’s son to embellish reality. Eyewitnesses reported that they had not seen the two chat during the entire qualifying round. Who cares. Whether or not it happened exactly as Owens related it, the friendship between two people from such different worlds and origins, in the midst of the most difficult of contexts, was real. Precise details are superfluous. Sometimes, as stated at the end of ‘Who Killed Liberty Valance’, the legend is worth printing.