Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 here)
The 1936 Olympics
Footage filmed after the Games in Eastern Prussia were used for the opening shots of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, as Luz Long describes in an amusing behind-the-scenes article.[i] Sadly, the footage of Long was not used in the final version.
As for the famous encounter of Luz Long and Jesse Owens, there have been doubts as to what actually happened for many years now. We only have Jesse Owens’ version of what allegedly took place during the trials at the 1936 Olympics:
It was the summer of 1936. The Olympic Games were being held in Berlin. Because Adolf Hitler childishly insisted that his performers were members of a “master race,” nationalistic feelings were at an all-time high. I wasn’t too worried about all this. I’d trained, sweated, and disciplined myself for six years, with the Games in mind. While I was going over on the boat, all I could think about was taking home one or two of those gold medals. I had my eye especially on the long jump. A year before, as a university student, I’d set the world record of 26 feet and a quarter inches (8.13 meters). Everyone kind of expected me to win that Olympic event hands down. I was in for a surprise. When the time came for the long-jump trials, I was startled to see a tall boy hitting the pit at almost 26 feet (7.90 meters) on his practice leaps! He turned out to be a German named Luz Long.
I was told that Hitler had kept him under wraps, evidently hoping to win the jump with him. I guessed that if Long won, it would add some new support to the Nazis’ Aryan-superiority theory. After all, I am a Negro. A little hot under the collar about Hitler’s ways, I determined to go out there and really show Der Führer and his master race who was superior and who wasn’t. An angry athlete is an athlete who will make mistakes, as any coach will tell you. I was no exception. On the first of my three qualifying jumps, I leapt from several centimeters beyond the take-off board for a foul. On the second jump, I fouled even worse. “Did I come all the way from America for this?” I thought bitterly. “To foul out of the trials and make a fool of myself?” Walking a few meters from the pit, I kicked disgustedly at the ground. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to look into the friendly blue eyes of the tall German long jumper. He had easily qualified for the finals on his first attempt. He offered me a firm handshake.
“Jesse Owens, I’m Luz Long. I don’t think we’ve met.” He spoke English well, though with a German twist to it. “Glad to meet you,” I said. Then, trying to hide my nervousness, I added, “How are you?” “I’m fine. The question is: How are you?” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Something must be eating you,” he said — proud the way foreigners are when they’ve mastered a bit of American slang. “You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed.” “Believe me, I know it,” I told him — and it felt good to say that to someone. For the next few minutes we talked together. I didn’t tell Long what was “eating” me, but he seemed to understand my anger, and he took pains to reassure me. Although he’d been schooled in the Nazi youth movement, he didn’t believe in the Aryan-supremacy business any more than I did. We laughed over the fact that he really looked the part, though. An inch taller than I, he had a lean, muscular frame, clear blue eyes, blond hair, and a strikingly handsome, chiseled face.
Finally, seeing that I had calmed down somewhat, he pointed to the take-off board. “Look,” he said. “Why don’t you draw a line a few inches at the back of the board and aim at making your take-off from there? You’ll be sure not to foul, and you certainly ought to jump far enough to qualify. What does it matter if you’re not the first in the trials? Tomorrow is what counts.” Suddenly all the tension seemed to ebb out of my body as the truth of what he said hit me. Confidently, I drew a line a full foot at the back of the board and proceeded to jump from there. I qualified with almost a foot to spare.
That night I walked over to Luz Long’s room in the Olympic village to thank him. . . . We sat in his quarters and talked for two hours about track and field, ourselves, the world situation, a dozen other things. . . .
When I finally got up to leave, we both knew that a real friendship had been formed. Luz would go out to the field the next day trying to beat me if he could. But I knew that he wanted me to do my best — even if that meant my winning.
As it turned out, Luz broke his own past record. In doing so, he pushed me on to a peak performance. I remember that at the instant I landed from my final jump — the one which set the Olympic record of 26 feet 5-5/16 inches — he was at my side, congratulating me. Despite the fact that Hitler glared at us from the stands not a hundred meters away, Luz shook my hand hard — and it wasn’t a fake “smile with a broken heart” sort of grip, either. You can melt down all the gold medals and cups I have, and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. I realized then, too, that Luz was the epitome of what Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, must have had in mind when he said, “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”[ii]
Aside from the absurd notion of Hitler having kept him under wraps (how would he have managed that, with Long being European champion?), Luz Long himself never made any mention of this in his extensive newspaper article in the Neue Leipziger Zeitung of August 11, 1936:
Owens enters the race. Just after the 200-meter heats, he comes in for the broad jump, briefly measures the track, stands somewhat carelessly at his start, runs through in his tracksuit – – –. Poor Jesse, don’t you know that there is no trial jump? The fabulously accurate judges have no mercy. First jump is done. The second by Jesse Owens somewhat bitterly follows — overstepped! I hardly dare to think, would there be a sensation and Owens would be thrown out after a failed third jump? No! Owens’ nerves are not that bad. I’m sure he’ll jump about 7.60 meters. Now I know there will be a bitter fight in the afternoon. Tajima, the only Olympic bronze medalist in 1932, has also qualified. Now the situation is clear for the preliminaries in the afternoon. . . .
Third preliminary jump, just as I calm down Leichum, Owens does it with Brooks. Now Owens goes even further. He, the dear, uncomplicated boy, even goes to Bäumle, whom he massages (not me, because I don’t let myself be massaged in the final fight), and gets special applause for it from the sports-savvy audience. So there is even this gesture of peace during the hottest fight! . . . I constantly translate the results of meters into “feet and inches” (the English scales) for the Americans and Japanese. . . .
Now it’s my turn; again, just the thoughts, loose and wide, light and not too fast: length for the flight! Again the stadium is silent, again a German is in the fray. The broad jump has long been of interest to the masses; they smell a sensation, a sensation that the audience wants.
I receive final instructions through chants. I have to laugh, I feel happy and light, I am glad that the German spectators can shout and rhyme. Short concentration, the headwind has just died down, so off we go. . . .
The preliminaries are over. Now the photoshoot starts, the well-known photo of Owens and me lying together is taken, the congratulation by Leni Riefenstahl, many other pictures are taken. . . .
We pack up our markers and move over to the finishing straight. Wrapped in thick woolen blankets and long raincoats, we six finalists move in, the strong wind chilling our muscles and reducing our reaction speed. . . .
Free of competitive fear, [Owens] jumps, flies, and lands at 8.06 meters to a roar of cheers from the crowd. This almost a magical distance in this weather. I can’t help it, I run to him and am the first to congratulate and hug him. He replied, “You forced me to give my best!”[iii]
Finally, a third testimony comes from Werner Textor in a letter to Kai Long. As a 16-year-old schoolboy, Textor was a caretaker for the Swiss handball players during the 1936 Olympic Games. During the broad jump competition, he was live in the Olympic stadium:
I watched the broad jump discipline from this trench and was about 20 to 30 meters away from the jump pit and run-up track. Two scenes have remained in my memory, probably also because they were captured by well-known photos.
I saw Owens and Long lying side-by-side on their bellies on the grass, smiling at the camera and seemingly in good spirits. The second and probably more important picture shows Owens after a jump that was invalidated.
And now my impression: Luz Long stood in front of him and talked to him. Because of the distance, of course, I didn’t understand a word. But the gestures, Luz Long’s arm and hand movements were all the clearer for me. I interpreted that in such a way he described the run-up and the jump of Owens. My comrades standing next to me and I had the impression that he wanted to make it clear to him what he might have done wrong and could do better on the next jump.
I can’t be sure whether what I have described here took place during the preliminaries or during the decision, however. I am nevertheless sure that Owens had only one attempt left at that point. But we also wondered about the fact that one athlete seemed to be giving good advice to his fiercest competitor during the competition.[iv]
Kai Long’s book features a photo that is probably the one referred to by Textor, but according to the author, it could not be clarified with certainty when the photo was taken: during the qualification, in the preliminaries, or in the final. But it has also been suggested that the photo might be a fake.[v] (I happen to disagree, but who knows?)
The whole exchange, including the broad jump itself, was heavily edited in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, but some of the material has since been published in various documentaries and books, so we know that at least the congratulatory hug did happen, as well as Long and Owens leaving the stadium arm-in-arm. The rest, however, is doubtful.
It’s a stereotype-busting story — the image of the blond, blue-eyed symbol of German supremacy helping his black competitor. It’s a story that was included in recent press releases from track and field governing bodies to help promote the events in Berlin honoring Owens and Long. And it’s a story, according to one Olympic historian, that never happened.
Tom Ecker, author of Olympic Facts and Fables, says he asked Owens directly about the story in 1965. Ecker had noticed inconsistencies in how Owens told the tale. He had read Grantland Rice’s account of the Olympic long jump. Rice, the preeminent sports journalist at the time, had binoculars trained on Owens during the qualifying round and never saw him talk to Long. And so it was that Ecker and a colleague asked Owens about it in 1965.
“Jesse Owens admitted to us that he had not met Luz Long until after the competition was over,” Ecker says. So why hadn’t Owens told the real story in his many public speaking appearances? “He once was quoted as saying, ‘Those stories are what people like to hear, so you tell ‘em,’ ” Ecker said.[vi]
The 1936 Olympic Games and all the legends surrounding it were Owens’ claim to fame and something he tried to live on. His story changed according to whom he was addressing, something the film The Jesse Owens Story actually portrays. The documentary Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin (1966), which was written, directed, and produced by Bud Greenspan, is a telling example of this. Owens, while clearly a gifted speaker, caters to all the stereotypes an American audience at the time expected to hear. A young Kai Long, now about the age his father was in 1936, features alongside the athlete in the Olympia stadium, in an embarrassingly scripted encounter.
In later years, Kai Long maintained his belief that there was nothing political about his father’s gesture toward Jesse Owens. To him, it had never been about race but simply an act in the spirit of true sportsmanship and amateur athletics such as still prevailed at that time. The hug had been a spontaneous sporting gesture, not a deliberate provocation. For Jesse Owens, of course, it might have looked very different.
Going from these vague and often contradictory descriptions, the two film versions of Owens and Long’s legendary broad jump duel, The Jesse Owens Story (1984) and Race (2016), portray it very differently. Interestingly, neither seem to feel the need to stick to Owens’ account, but rather use it as a starting point for their own interpretation. The Jesse Owens Story suggests that Long only grasped the outlandish idea of lending assistance to a competitor by watching Owens help a Mexican athlete, and also suggests that the German Olympic authorities actively tried to disqualify Owens at the broad jump, with Long then coming up with a plan to thwart them. Race, on the other hand, treats the whole thing in a rather more subdued fashion in keeping with its none-too-subtle theme of everyone living in fear of the ever-present threat of getting a visit from the men in the black trenchcoats.
The Jesse Owens Story portrays Long (Kai Wulff) as a man who is perhaps apolitical or blind to the dangers of Germany’s political system, but basically a decent human being. When Owens (Dorian Harewood) shows Long an issue of Der Angriff that had been shoved under his door, asking Long to translate an article comparing the skulls of blacks with the skulls of apes, Long does so rather reluctantly, pointing out that Der Angriff is not a “real Zeitung,” and crumpling the newspaper in shame. Owens, trying to make light of the situation, jokes that, as he had been getting love letters from German women, asking to marry him, “A lot of German women must think it’s better to make love with an ape than an Aryan.”
This ties in nicely with a scene in Race, a film that, in contrast to the rather more ambiguous Jesse Owens Story, goes all out. Not only does Long (David Kross) show his defiance to the system by helping Owens (Stephan James) and by hugging him after his victory, he actually speaks out against the Party in front of him. Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) similarly emerges as quite the rebel when she is forbidden by the Propaganda Ministry to film Owens’ triumph, but does it anyway. Later on, Long confides to Owens that he had received a female visitor the night before who wanted to get pregnant by him — and Long suspects she had been ordered to. Obviously, this is a reference to the popular but long-debunked myth of an Aryan breeding program in the Lebensborn homes, but it also insinuates that German women would have to be ordered to sleep with a handsome white guy — because they would, of course, never want to do that of their own free will . . .
The ending then broad-jumps from 1936 straight to 1939 and the start of the Second World War, telling us that “following his defiance of the Nazi ideal, Luz Long was enlisted in the German army and sent to the front lines.” As far as messages go, this is an exceedingly bizarre one. Apparently, Hitler had held a grudge against Long for showing sportsmanship toward a black man and then waited three whole years before finally getting even.
In reality, while it was true, according to Kai Long, that his father was reprimanded by Rudolf Hess for having embraced a black man and told not to do so again, this was all. Instead of being sent straight to the front lines in 1939 as the film implies, Luz Long was drafted sometime before May 1, 1941 (the exact date is unknown), in the normal course of recruitment, and then was mainly kept at the barracks in Berlin, precisely so he wouldn’t be killed. He had propaganda value, after all. In fact, when, at the beginning of May 1943, Long was dispatched to Sicily with the Hermann Göring Division, he had the opportunity to avoid combat duty but felt obliged to go because all his comrades were being sent to the front.
Then, on July 10, 1943, the Allies launched Operation Husky to liberate Sicily. Long’s armored division fought at Gela. In the course of the battle, he was hit in the left leg by an artillery shell fragment.
Kai Long quotes a letter from Robert Stadler, who fought in his father’s unit:
When our unit was taken out, only Siebert and I were left alive. We tried to escape and ran for our lives, being pursued by the Americans. In the nearby vineyard in Biscari we came across Luz Long, who was lying there with a badly bleeding wound in one thigh. We quickly tried to bind the wound with a torn piece of clothing, which certainly didn’t help much. He whispered something, and we, being pursued by the Americans, had to run for our lives. In my opinion, Luz Long died of excessive blood loss.
Gerhard Weinmann, a comrade-in-arms from the same unit and a sports comrade of Luz’s from his time with the LSV Berlin, wrote to my mother on July 28, 1943:
. . . I myself believe that Luz bled to death. God may [grant] it be otherwise, but how could a Luz Long disappear from the face of the earth without a trace? I asked myself this question very often. Such a name would mean something to the enemy, after all. . . .
Long after the end of the war, after seven years of searching and waiting, my mother received news on March 21, 1950 from the Red Cross in Germany that Luz’s grave had been found. He was buried in the German honor section of the American military cemetery at Gela, in Caltanissetta province.[vii]
Today, Luz Long’s mortal remains rest in the war cemetery of Motta Saint Anastasia in Sicily. Owens’ story, however, did not end there. He later quoted from a letter he had received from Long during wartime:
Dear friend Jesse! . . . I only fear dying for the wrong cause. I hope that my wife and son will survive. I ask you as my only friend outside of Germany that you will visit them one day to tell them why I had to do this and how beautiful the time we shared was. Luz.[viii]
An NPR article also quotes from what appears to be the same letter:
Someday find my son . . . tell him about how things can be between men on this Earth.[ix]
According to Kai Long, Owens did find Long’s family in 1951, even though his widow had remarried by that point. Kai was just ten years old at the time and was taken by Owens to see the Harlem Globetrotters, with whom he was traveling (turning the meeting into a bit of a publicity stunt as well). Whether a letter by Luz Long had anything to do with it or whether Owens acted on his own initiative, Kai Long doesn’t say; but reading between the lines of his book, one gets the impression that he is just too polite to call out Owens’ various embellishments — and his marketing — of the story. The website silvermedals.net is rather blunter about it: “The whole deathbed request portion of the story is just pure Hollywood bullshit. It never happened.”[xi]
It is certainly interesting how both men’s families dealt with the legacy they were saddled with. While Owens’ descendants have taken the route of (at least publicly) sticking to the story as he told it, Long’s family appears to just go along with it when requested, as in the opening ceremony of the rebuilt Berlin Olympic stadium. They stated, rather objectively, that they have no knowledge of any wartime correspondence between Long and Owens, but that it is possible that it existed. The Long family know what is expected of them, but tend to concentrate on commemorating Luz Long as his own man — unsurprisingly, given the fact that his life and achievements have been reduced in the modern narrative to one interaction with Jesse Owens.
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[i] Long, 119-123.
[ii] Readers Digest Asia, October 1960, quoted in Long, 205-206.
[iii] Luz Long, “Mein Kampf mit Owens,”, in Neue Leipziger Zeitung, August 11, 1936; quoted in Long, 98-102.
[iv] Long, 207.
[vii] Long, 193-201.
[x] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luz_Long “Long and Owens corresponded after 1936. In his last letter, Long wrote to Owens and asked him to contact his son Karl [sic] after the war and tell him about his father and ‘what times were like when we were not separated by war. I am saying — tell him how things can be between men on this Earth.’”
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