Tall, blond and blue-eyed, the long jumper Luz Long was the prototype athlete Adolf Hitler needed to prove his thesis about 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 were only enough for him to win the silver medal, behind the American champion Jesse Owens. In the eyes of the Nazi leadership, losing the gold was not the worst sin Long committed that day.
Hitler’s goal in Berlin was twofold. On the one hand, to prove to the world Nazi Germany’s ability to stage 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 threw itself into 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 the director and propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, a filmmaker of unquestionable talent, although on this occasion in the service of a vile cause.
The success of the second objective is more doubtful. Although Germany dominated the medal table with 89 medals, Jewish athletes of different nationalities won several medals, much to the discomfort of the Nazi regime. But it was the black athletes who caused the Third Reich’s leaders the most headaches. Especially the athlete Jesse Owens. From his box of honor, Hitler had to witness how a black man born in Alabama overcame all his white rivals and became the undisputed king of the Games, winning four gold medals in athletics.
Companionship and dignity
The third day of the track and field competition was the long jump, with Owens, the world record holder, as the top favourite. The day before he had already won his first gold medal in the 100m dash and that same day he ran the heats of the 200m. His most prominent opponent in the long jump was the German Carl Ludwig Long, better known as Luz Long, who held the European record. One was black, athletic and lithe; the other, blond, tall and elegant. Their techniques were different and so were their worlds.
The morning qualifying event began with Long’s Olympic record on the first jump, which guaranteed him a spot in the afternoon final. Owens, meanwhile, made two no’s on his first attempts, leaving him on the brink of elimination. He had only one chance left to clear the minimum mark of 7.15m and qualify for the final. She could not fail. It was then that Luz Long, his Aryan competitor, his most dangerous opponent, approached him, introduced herself and they had a brief exchange of words.
The German suggested to Owens that he should not look for the jump of his life on every attempt. In Long’s opinion, the Alabama man should forget about adjusting his swing so much and be more conservative on the third jump, leaving a safe distance between the board and his foot. The American accepted the advice and on his third attempt he went 7.64 metres. The conversation was revealed years later by Jesse Owens himself in a conversation with Long’s son in the documentary ‘Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin’.
A hug for equality
In the final they had an attractive battle for the gold, both beating the Olympic record several times. Luz Long kept up the head-to-head 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.
After the competition, Long went to Owens to congratulate him with a hug. Both celebrated their respective medals by doing a lap of honour around the stadium together. The fraternity between a black man from Alabama and a blond man from Leipzig, in front of the Nazi hierarchs, was more eloquent than any speech for equality that could be made. “He had great courage to fraternize with me in front of Hitler,” Owens would recall. “You could melt down all the medals and cups I won, and they would be worthless against the 24-carat friendship I made with Luz Long at the time.”
The numerous medals won by black athletes shook up 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 such a way. Hitler, who left the stadium without shaking Owens’ hand, turned the argument on its head and resorted to contempt. To him the black athletes were basically animals. Their physical superiority only proved that they were savages who should have no 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 as their lives went on. Owens saw how fleeting glory was for a black athlete in 1936 America. “When I got back to my country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go in the back door,” he said later. “I wasn’t invited to shake Hitler’s hand, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake my president’s hand either.” 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 anything happened to him, to contact his son in Germany and tell him about his father, his accomplishments and his life. The missive proved sadly prophetic. Shortly thereafter, 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 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 kept in touch with Luz Long’s family and accepted Kai Long’s request to be the best man at his wedding.
In 1964, posthumously, Luz Long was the first athlete to be decorated with the Coubertin Medal, an award established to distinguish those athletes whose behaviour, during the development of their Olympic activity, reflects in an exemplary way the sporting spirit.
Some believe that the story of the conversation prior to the third qualifying jump is apocryphal, a fantasy that Owens told Long’s son to embellish reality. Eyewitness observers claimed not to have seen the two chatting during the entire qualifying round. Who cares. Whether or not it happened exactly as Owens told it, the friendship between two people from such different worlds and backgrounds, amid 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.
Although the Olympic Games won’t officially open until next Friday, with the opening ceremony, two sports will get a head start and start rolling as early as Wednesday. First will be softball, which returns to the Olympic programme after being absent since Beijing 2008. The first minutes of Olympic competition will be played by the host team against Australia in the early hours of Spanish morning (2:00 am). The other discipline that will be kicking off early is football. The U.S. women’s national team will kick off at 10:30 am against Sweden. It will be the first chance to see the team led by Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, the big favourites for gold, in action. A few appetizers to whet your appetite for the Olympic banquet that awaits us from next weekend.