Jesse Owens, one of the greatest athletes of all time, participated in the controversial 1936 Nazi Olympics. His competitor was the superb German athlete, Luz Long. As excerpted from his biography, Jesse confronted this “enemy” but found, instead, a friend.
Read My Brother Luz: Told by Jesse Owens (Part 1)
“Jesse Owens!” Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t the loudspeaker calling my name a final time. It was a man standing right there next to me.
It was Luz Long. My archenemy. Or was he? The way his hand rested on my shoulder, the vibrations I felt as he looked at me and smiled, made me know somehow that, far from being my enemy, he was my friend.
“I Luz Long,” he said, introducing himself. I nodded. “I think I know what is wrong with you,” he went on. “You give everything when you jump. I the same. You cannot do halfway, but you are afraid you will foul again.”
“That’s right,” I said, finding my voice for the first time.
“I have answer,” he said. “Same thing happen to me last year in Cologne.”
There were literally only seconds left before I had to jump or default. Luz told me to simply remeasure my steps and jump from six inches in back of the takeoff board—giving it all I had. That way I could give 100 percent, and still not be afraid of fouling. He even laid his towel down at exactly the place from which I was to jump. It was so simple! And it worked.
I could feel the confident energy surging back into my body as I stood still for that brief second before beginning my run. I went as fast as I ever had, took off, and felt almost like I was flying. When I came down, it was more than twenty-six feet—an Olympic record—from the takeoff board. With the extra six inches, it surely would have been a new unofficial record. But what did I care about records? I was in the finals.
I didn’t know how to thank Luz Long. All I could offer was my friendship. I met with him that night, and we talked, over coffee, in the Olympic Village. We might’ve stayed up a little later than athletes should who have to compete against the best from every country in the following days, but it was worth it.
For the bond between us gave a spiritual strength that was greater than the physical. Luz and I, it turned out, were very much alike. He was married and had one child, as I did. A son, Karl. He had come from humble beginnings. And he didn’t believe Hitler’s Aryan supremacy statements and was disturbed by Hitler’s military aggressiveness. Still, it was his country and he felt that if he didn’t fight for it, he would be putting his family in danger.
I asked him about religion. He said that he did not have any, had never really known any. “Do you believe in God?” I questioned. He held out his hands, palms up, as if to say he didn’t know. Then he shrugged a little, as if to add that he had never really had any evidence that there was a higher power. He was so good, and all the truly good people I’d known till then believed in God. But even if Luz was a Nazi who might soon be my archenemy again, trying to kill my countrymen and even me, I felt that beneath that he was my brother. And even though he didn’t believe in God, I believed in Luz Long.
We spent each night afterward talking, and the days competing. Because of the support he gave me, I won the 100-meter dash and the 200-meter, breaking records in both, and helped to lead my team to victory, and a record, in the relay. But most of all, I was waiting for the high point: the broad-jump. For here, once again, Luz and I would be competing against each other. Without him, I would have never been competing at all. Yet I somehow had to fuse that feeling with the will to do my best. For wasn’t my love for Luz, and yes, I loved him—a love for the best that is within man, and within me?
The day of the broad-jump arrived. One by one, the other finalists fell by the wayside. Then, it was only Luz Long and Jesse Owens. His first leap took the lead. I beat it. His second of three was even better. I beat it by half an inch. I watched him take a deep breath before his final leap. I watched his blue eyes look up into the sky, then down, fixing on a point which he knew, and I knew, would be well over an Olympic record. I could see him transforming the same beautiful energy which had enabled him to come to me and change the course of my life when I needed it most … into the determination to do what had never been done before—to do what most men would call a “miracle.”
He stood perfectly still for an instant. Only his eyes moved as they looked skyward once more, and then he began his run. Fast from the beginning, not gradual like most, but then faster. His perfectly proportioned legs flashing like pistons now, his finely honed physique working like one total machine, all for one purpose, for one split second.
And then it happened. High. Higher than I’d ever seen anyone leap. But with so much power that it was not merely high, it was far. Incredibly far.
It seemed for a split second that he would never come down. But then he did, straining his body more than I’d ever seen any man strain, as if he were an eagle attempting at the last minute to rise above an infinite mountain…straining…moving forward as he fell downward … forward farther … forward …
He landed! Exactly in the spot on which his eyes had fixed. Luz Long had set a new Olympic record. I rushed over to him. Hugged him. I was glad. So glad. But now … it was my turn.
I took my time, measured my steps once, then again. I was tense, but that good kind of tense that you feel when you have to be tense to do your best. Deep, deep inside, under all the layers, there was a clear, placid pool of peace. Now I, too, stood perfectly still. I, too, looked up at the sky. Then, I looked into Luz’s blue eyes, as he stood off to the side, his face wordlessly urging me to do my best, to do better than I’d ever done.
I didn’t look at the end of the pit. I decided I wasn’t going to come down. I was going to fly. I was going to stay up in the air forever. I began my run, also fast from the beginning, not gradual like most, but then faster. I went faster, precariously fast, using all my speed to its advantage. And then! I hit the takeoff board.
Leaped up, up, up … my body was weightless … I surged with all I had, but at the same time merely let it float … higher, higher … into the clouds … I was reaching for the clouds … the Heavens. I was coming down! Back to earth. I fought against it, kicked my legs. I churned my arms. I reached to the sky as I leaped for the farthest part of the ground. The farthest …
I was on the earth once again. I felt the dirt and the sand of the pit in my shoes and on my legs. Instinctively, I fell forward, my elbows digging in, the tremendous velocity of my jump forcing sand into my mouth. It tasted good. Almost instinctively, I sensed it was the sand from a part of the pit, which no one had ever reached before.
Luz was the first to reach me. “You did it! I know you did it,” he whispered. They measured. I had done it. I had gone farther than Luz. I had set a new Olympic record. I had jumped farther than any man on earth. Luz didn’t let go of my arm. He lifted it up—as he had lifted me up in a different way a few days before—and led me away from the pit and toward the crowd. “Jazze Owenz!” he shouted. “Jazze Owenz!”
Some people in the crowd responded, “Jazze Owenz!”
Now a majority of the crowd picked it up. “Jazze Owenz! Jazze Owenz! Jazze Owenz!” they yelled.
Luz yelled it again. The crowd yelled it again. Luz again. And now the whole crowd, more than a hundred thousand Germans, were yelling, “Jazze Owenz! Jazze Owenz! Jazze Owenz!”
They were cheering me. But only I knew who they were really cheering. I lifted Luz Long’s arm.
“Luz Long!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. “Luz Long! Luz Long! Luz Long!”
Luz Long may not have believed in God, but God had believed in Luz Long. And God had sent him to me.
Though neither of us imagined it then, that would be the last time we would see each other. The dark tides of politics and war were to pull us forever apart. Still we had become brothers in that one perfect moment of competition and charity. We vowed to correspond.
For a while I was one of the most famous people on earth. But I soon discovered how empty fame can be, and how easily it could be exploited by those who would use it, and me, for gain. I became entangled in a number of bad business deals and in a few years, I was bankrupt. It was only the steadfastness of my family and the friendship of Luz Long expressed in letters that helped me through. I was determined to pay back every penny I owed and start again.
Luz was undergoing trials, too. Germany had plunged into war, and he was in the military. After a while the letters we had faithfully exchanged every month or two stopped altogether. Soon America was in the war. I joined up. And then one day I received a letter posted from North Africa. It was over a year old. It was from Luz. It said, in part:
I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer. And I know it is never by chance that we come together.
And you, I believe, will read this letter. I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I have to tell you, Jesse. I believe in God. And I pray to Him that, even while it should not be possible to see you again, these words I write will still be read by you.
Those were Luz’s last words. I learned shortly thereafter that he had been killed in battle just a few days after he had written his letter to me. Our friendship had proved greater than the forces, which divided our nations. I had not lost my brother. His letter spoke the truth: … it is never by chance that we come together. God had sent him to me at a moment of personal despair, and he brought me the gift of hope. Bowing, but unable to pray on that Olympic field, I had given him a sign, a seed of faith which was to blossom in the deserts of North Africa.
Together we had shared the greatest gift of all, which comes from God. The gift of brotherly love which neither competition, nor war, nor even death could annul.
By Jesse Owens
(Part 1) | Part 2
Excerpted from Jesse, The Man Who Outran Hitler, © 1978, by Jesse Owens and Paul Neimark. Published by Logos International, Plainfield, N.J. Used by permission.