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A true Olympian

August 5, 2021

What a fascinating Olympics. 

No, not the super spreader event taking place now, a year late, in Tokyo. That one is as uninteresting as all the others as far as I’m concerned. Nothing but bloody sport, sport, sport on CBC for weeks. Yawn. I’m sure if I thought long and hard I might be able to name something I care about less, but I’d really have to concentrate.

I’m talking about the 1936 Olympics, the ones held in Berlin which Adolph Hitler was determined would shine a spotlight on the superiority of the Aryan race. 

Of course I knew about those games, knew that an athlete named Jesse Owens put a spanner in the works, winning four gold medals in track and field events much to the fury of the Fuhrer. I watched a fascinating PBS documentary about Owens last night. Not like me to watch anything sport-related, but the story of a black man humiliating the Nazi party? Well, that’s actually interesting, isn’t it?

Particularly interesting was his third gold medal win (he’d already won gold in the 100 metre and 200 metre races) in the long jump. His stiffest competition was Carl Ludwig (Luz) Long. The tall, blonde, blue eyed epitome of the Aryan race was the Fatherland’s best hope for a gold medal.

I don’t pretend to understand the rules of the long jump, but it seems you get a number of attempts in order to qualify for the next round of the competition. Apparently Owens faulted on his first two attempts (whatever that means). And then, according to the documentary, something rather extraordinary happened: Long approached Owens and suggested he start his jump a foot before the takeoff board to avoid another fault. Owens took the advice and went on to win the gold medal, with Long (giving the Nazi salute) winning the silver.

Whilst digging around to find a photo just now I came across an article stating that Owens, many years later, told a journalist this never actually happened, that Long did not offer this advice, that “it was just a good story”. Whether or not the story is true doesn’t actually matter as far as I was concerned. It was what happened after Owens won the gold that really counts. Not only did Long embrace Owens after his win in front of a stadium full of people, including Hitler, but he and Owens then walked arm in arm all the way around the track.

Can you imagine Adolph’s apoplexy? Not only had this negro shattered his super race dreams for the Olympics, but by the third day a stadium full of adoring German fans was screaming Jesse Owens’ name when he appeared. And now this: an Aryan superhero circling the field arm in arm with the black bastard.   

I had to do some digging this morning. I had to find out what happened to Long after the Berlin games. Surely there had been dire consequences for his show of humanity? Of, for want of a better word, his sportsmanship, his display of what is meant to be the Olympic spirit?

Apparently not. 

According to a post I found, after the games Luz went to law school. He became a lawyer in 1939, got married in 1941 and later that year had a son. By the end of 1942 there was no professional, marital or paternal escape from conscription. Luz was called up to join the infantry as a sergeant major and in 1943 was sent to Sicily where he was badly wounded in a battle. (It seems there was a rumour that he was actually shot by his own side, but there is absolutely no evidence to support this.) He was found by Allied soldiers and taken to a British field hospital, but there was nothing doctors could do for him. He died on 14 July 1943. 

Long and Owens had been corresponding since 1936. In a letter written from the front in late 1942, Long said: “Where I am it seems as if there was nothing more than sand and blood. I am not afraid for myself, but for my wife and my baby, who has never really known his father. My heart tells me this could be the last letter that I will write to you. If this were the case, I ask you only this: when the war is over, go to Germany to see my son and tell him that not even war managed to break our friendship. Your brother Luz”. 

I don’t know if Owens ever made that trip. I hope so.

Of course this wasn’t the only thing in the documentary. I found out that the fourth gold medal Owens won in 1936 was in an event in which he had not been scheduled to appear: the relay race.

At close to the last moment, Owens and another black athlete, Ralph Metcalfe, were informed they would be replacing team members Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller. Glickman and Stoller were Jewish. It seems, as bad as it was for the Fuhrer to watch black athletes beat German athletes, there was one thing which would be worse. Owens and Metcalfe were not happy, but they did what they were told. And their team won. (For anyone who cares: their time of 39.8 seconds set a world record that held for 20 years.)

There were no surprises in the section of the documentary devoted to life for Owens in the US after the Olympics. If he’d hoped his victories – not just in sport, but against the entire Nazi regime – would hold any sway once he returned to his homeland, he was sadly, tragically, but far from surprisingly disappointed. There was little fanfare. Fame there may have been, for all too brief a time, considering his achievements, but fortune certainly did not follow. At times he was reduced to racing horses to support his family.

In a 1971 interview Owens said this: “People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”

So, of course, it was depressing, albeit predictable, to watch. No surprises there. But still the surprise of Luz Long circling the track with Jesse Owens. He may have given the Nazi salute when he accepted his silver medal, but he also gave Adolph the finger at the end of the event. How has this not been turned into a film?

Oh, wait, it has.

Available on Netflix. Guess I know what I’ll be watching tonight.

Oh, but not on Netflix Canada. Figures.

From → Columns

One Comment
  1. nebulaflash permalink

    Thank you for writing about this.

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