Next month’s European Athletics Championships will take place at the scene of one of the sport’s most cherished chapters. But just how much of it is true? Mick O’Hare reports
It was one of the few heart-warming stories of a grim era. Amid the fascist hyperbole of the Nazi-hosted 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, at which it was virtually demanded that white, Aryan supremacy and athletic prowess was to dominate, a black man won four gold medals. And he was aided to one of those victories by a blond, muscular German athlete who, in many ways, embodied the Nazi ideal.
The black man was, of course, Jesse Owens, who triumphed in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m replay, as well we the long jump. Less well remembered is the German competitor, Luz Long, who the Nazis hoped – nay expected – would stop the American winning the last of those events. Long, so the story goes, gave Owens advice when he was having difficulty qualifying for the final. It worked and a legendary friendship was born. Or was it? Has this most uplifting of stories – of ordinary humans overcoming pervasive ideology – itself been subject to inadvertent manipulation?
Long was the European long jump record holder and had a hat-trick of German titles to his name – he would go on to win three more – when he and Owens arrived at the Olympic Stadium, in Berlin, on August 4, 1936. Nazi propaganda had already stated that black people ‘were primitives from the jungle, and should be excluded from future games’. Long was expected to put those notions of racial pre-eminence into practice. But it seemed that he hadn’t been listening.
Owens had failed twice in his bid to qualify for the long jump final, and was on his final attempt. Long asked Owens what was going on. ‘You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed,’ he said. ‘But something is eating you.’
The stadium was indeed intimidating with the gaze of the Nazi high command and thousands of home supporters looking down. Long suggested Owens adjust his starting point to avoid overstepping the take-off board. Owens did, and he qualified.
According to Owens it was the beginning of a wonderful relationship. In the final that afternoon, both jumpers repeatedly matched the others’ distances and, with the crowd cheering their man and Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler looking on, Owens set about his final attempt. In the frenzied atmosphere, Long looked to the crowd, raised his arms and then lowered them to quell the noise, before casting a ‘furtive’ glance at the Fuhrer. The stadium quietened, Owens was able to concentrate, and he leapt to victory, leaving Long with the silver medal. Hitler left the stadium.
‘I didn’t go there to shake hands [with Hitler]’, said Owens. ‘What I remember most is the friendship I struck up with Luz Long’. Owens continued to correspond with Long after he returned to the US, the letters ceasing after Long’s death in a British military hospital in wartime Sicily in 1943. But Owens’s friendship with Long’s family continued after the war when the German’s son contacted him.
They stayed in touch until Owens’s death in 1980. Of that day in the Olympic stadium, Owens’s wrote: ‘You can melt down all the 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.’ Photographs show them smiling, chatting and walking arm-in-arm after the competition.
But was it all true? Was Owens somehow being duped, or misunderstanding the situation? German news magazine Der Spiegel would appear to believe so. It has suggested that most of the statements proclaiming their friendship were made by Owens, and documents and letters gathered about the life of Long by his son provide little supporting evidence of the spoken or written interchanges between the two athletes.
Further corroboration, according to Der Spiegel, comes in an article Long wrote for his local newspaper Neue Leipziger Zeitung. In it he wrote about the jump that brought him level with Owens earlier in the final. ‘The Führer is clapping enthusiastically… and I can hardly believe what I see. He stands up, greets me with his benevolent, fatherly smile, and there is only one wish in his eyes: That I may win.’
Obviously Der Spiegel is in the business of selling magazines, which is not to doubt its journalistic integrity. But the evidence that Long was no friend of Owens is hardly conclusive.
The argument is that Owens’s adulation was misplaced and was just one-way. On the one hand, this is almost patronising in itself because it suggests Owens was incapable of making an adequate judgement. But more pertinently it ignores the fact that historians have had no opportunity since to question Long, and the ability to do that before his death would have been stymied in the closed German state. Owens on the other hand had plenty of time to speak about it – he lived another four decades.
Of the newspaper article Long wrote (or more likely had ghost-written for him) it must be seen in context. The German had just been seen in the Olympic Stadium being chummy with a black man who then beat him, denying Germany glory in front of the Nazi high-command. Long wasn’t going to be the most popular person in the eyes of the regime. As Owens himself said: ‘It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler.’
This was 1930s Germany. Who would write in a newspaper that their best buddy was black in preference to eulogising the Führer? Long probably saw life as infantryman looming, a fate that ultimately befell him anyway. And the words that appeared sound far more like the guff an all-encompassing ministry for propaganda would spout than the words of a sportsman.
Perhaps the most risible argument (one not repeated by Der Spiegel) is that somehow Long was making the point to Owens that he was his intellectual superior, and that Owens could not win without his help. The suggestion that Long would give up Olympic victory (and thus – assuming he was duping Owens – miss out on the opportunity to display his so-called racial superiority in front of the watching world) with no guarantee that Owens would subsequently tell reporters what a great sport Long had been is stupefying in its absurdity.
And the friendly correspondence to Long from Owens that nobody can find? Long’s mother recalled that Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess told him to ‘never embrace a Negro again’. So it’s fair to say that even if Long wasn’t being directly watched, he would have felt pressure to conform. Any correspondence he might have received from Owens was probably safer binned, and any stories left untold.
But Long’s letters to Owens exist. The last one was written from the front and reached Owens after Long had been killed. In it he wrote: ‘Go to Germany when this war [is] done… find my son and tell him about his father… what times were like when we [were] not separated by war… tell him how things can be between men on the earth.’ This was Long risking writing to the enemy during wartime. It does not read like the missive of a man who bore animosity to his former sports rival.
Next month’s European Athletics Championships, which start on August 7, will be held in that very same Olympic Stadium, where stone tablets still record the victories of all the athletes successful at the games including, of course, Owens. Long’s name is missing, only the gold medallists are present, but it’s probably safe to conclude that he would be more than happy to know that his friend’s name is still on show in the stadium where both became famous, and their friendship took root.
Luz Long continued his law studies at the University of Leipzig after the Olympics, and briefly practiced in Hamburg after completing a doctorate.
However, he was drafted into the armed forces in 1941. He initially served as a sports instructor, but by May 1943 he was a Lance Corporal in a paratrooper flak unit of the Hermann Goering Division in Sicily.
In July, the Allies invaded the island and Long was involved in heavy fighting with American forces near San Pietro airfield, near the south coast. He was badly wounded and captured, dying later in a British military hospital, aged 30.
He was initially buried at nearby Gela but, in 1961, was reburied at the German war cemetery in Motta Santa Anastasia, near Catania.