Jesse Owens and Luz Long: an “impossible” friendship in the name of sport



When I decided to talk about sport on this blog, it was not only because it is one of my main interests, as you will have realised, but particularly because, aside from certain instances of misconduct, such as doping, hooliganism, excessive competitiveness at a juvenile level and other issues that I have already covered, I have always considered sport as a source of positive examples, values and stories of great human spirit.

Many people have heard of Jesse Owens, the black American athlete who triumphed in front of Hitler during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, which had been envisaged by the dictator as a display of superiority of the white race. A friend recently told me another detail that really struck me. A German athlete, Ludwig “Luz” Long, was competing in the Games and posed a challenge to Owens in the long jump. Long noticed that Owens, distracted by the heats of the 200 metres (in which he was also competing), had already fouled on his first two jumps, so he advised him to take off at least ten inches before the foul line, and placed a T-shirt alongside the pit at the ideal take-off point. Owens listened to this totally unexpected advice from his rival, qualified for the final and then won the gold medal. The blond jumper was the first to embrace the black champion and congratulate him, under the eyes of Adolf Hitler. The friendship between the two lasted until Long’s death, during the Second World War, and for decades united the families of the two rival athletes, who found themselves on opposing sides of the conflict that soon erupted.

It is a small but great story. On the one hand, it provides a little-known glimpse of an era, with its ideological follies and extravagant ambitions of domination, in which the ground was being prepared for one of the most terrible tragedies in human history. On the other, it is a perfect example of the fundamental values of sport: fair competition, above all, and the ability to distinguish proper sporting rivalry from enmity, or even hatred. These are values which, despite the horror of those years, were clearly expressed. They are also of great relevance today.