In 1967, the guest speaker at the annual athletic awards banquet at the United States Air Force Academy was Jesse Owens, the great American Olympian whose four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics spoiled Adolf Hitler’s planned Aryan showcase. I was 18-years old and felt very special and very humble as I looked to the podium and this wonderful man. Four decades later as I researched my historical novel The Hamsa, I came upon Leni Riefenstahl’s classic film “Olympia.” Commissioned personally by Adolf Hitler, Ms. Riefenstahl’s film documents those 1936 games. In the privacy of my office, I was once more humbled and awed as I watched Jesse Owens compete at those games.
The most memorable event to me was the long jump. While there are those who disclaim the story, it’s told that Jesse sat on the brim of disqualification after faulting on his first two qualifying jumps; a third fault and Jesse would not make it to the final round. As the story goes, the German champion, Luz Long approached Jesse and suggested that he readjust his takeoff mark several inches behind the takeoff board. Jesse took his advice and qualified for the final round. Throughout the final round, Jesse and Luz exchanged leads and in the process surpassed the previous Olympic record five times. With a final jump left and Luz Long in the lead with a record jump of 7.87 meters, Jesse Owens won the gold medal with an amazing leap of 8.06 meters [26.44 feet].
Jesse Owens and Luz Long became friends and corresponded quite frequently.
Jesse Owens’ post-Olympic life, somewhat reminiscent of Jim Thorpe and other great athletes of their time, was not an easy one. Luz Long completed law school but was obligated to serve in the German army in World War II. He was injured during the Allied invasion of Sicily and died in a British-controlled military hospital in 1943. In his last letter to Jesse Owens that he wrote in 1942 after the United States declared war on Germany, Luz Long wrote:
“My heart is telling me that this is perhaps the last letter of my life. If that is so, I beg on 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.”
In 1951, Jesse Owens honored Luz Long’s request and delivered the message to Long’s son.
Luz Long is a hero. No gold medal was too important to prevent him from helping a fellow man and a fellow athlete even in the greatest competition, the Olympic Games. He was able to look beyond the color of a man’s skin, and he was able to ignore the lies that his government would have him believe regarding the superiority of one race over another, and the inferiority of one religion below all others. Luz Long did perform extraordinary deeds, and in serving his country — not Hitler and his Nazis — he continued to do what is right regardless of the circumstances. His is a story worthy to tell your children and grandchildren.