As the victorious United States Olympic team begins to arrive back home today, it is a safe bet that the best story out of London has yet to be told. That sounds odd, with television’s coverage the best it has ever been and the texts and tweets not leaving a single stone unturned, but if you’ll give the 550 athletes who brought 104 medals back from England about 20 years to refine and distill what they remember the most, it might surprise you.
In 1960 I was 12 years old when I read an absolutely unforgettable story that Jesse Owens had written in Reader’s Digest that year. We children were constantly encouraged to read when I was growing up and Jesse Owens, easily one of the greatest Olympic heroes of all time, had been asked by the magazine to revisit the 1936 Olympics.
What he wrote 24 years later was a story that remains as my favorite Olympic memory to this day.
Jesse did not write about the four gold medals he won under the hateful stare of Adolph Hitler, or the fact that as a black athlete he had to overcome overwhelming odds everywhere he went. “Der Fuhrer” had planned to use the Berlin games to showcase his Aryan “master race” and had carefully hidden a handsome blonde in the running broad jump to purposely ridicule – and beat -- the American, Jesse Owens. That German’s name was Luz Long.
Owens, as the world knows, received his pre-Olympic fame as a great athlete when he broke a world record as a sophomore at Ohio State. He was actually born in Alabama as James C. Owens, but when his family moved North during “The Great Migration,” this when Owens was just nine, his grade school teacher asked his name and his Southern accent came out “Jesse.” That’s what he was called ever since because he’d been taught to never correct an adult.
You’ve got to know that Adolph Hitler, one of the worst humans ever born, did not like Jesse Owens coming to Berlin at all. As Albert Speer, Hitler’s armaments minister, would later recall, “Each of the German victories, and there were a surprising number of these, made (Hitler) happy, but he was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.”
By the summer of 1936 the whole world knew that Hitler was up to no good. Jesse already held the world record for the running broad jump at 26 feet 8¼ inches but when Owens got to the trials he saw Hitler’s “secret weapon” -- Luz Long -- hitting almost 26 feet in each of his practice leaps. Jesse was told Lutz was a surprise that Der Fuhrer had been waiting to spring on Owens and immediately Jesse was furious that because of his skin anyone would think of him as inferior or primitive.
“An angry athlete is an athlete who will make mistakes, as any coach will tell you,” Jesse wrote in Reader’s Digest. “I was no exception. On the first of my three qualifying jumps, I leaped from several inches beyond the take-off board for a foul. On the second jump, I fouled even worse. ‘Did I come 3,000 miles for this?’ I thought bitterly. ‘To foul out of the trials and make a fool of myself?’”
As Jesse fought with his emotions, he felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning, he saw the blonde Aryan, who smiled, extended his hand and said in English, “Jesse Owens, I’m Luz Long. I don’t think we’ve met.”
Then, Jesse wrote, “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.”
* * *
Of course, Jesse wouldn’t tell Luz what the real problem was but the German sensed it, telling Jesse he didn’t go for the “master race” malarkey either, and the two athletes laughed over the fact Luz sure looked the part. As Jesse felt the tension lift from his body, Luz offered a suggestion for what would be Jesse’s third and last try.
Pointing at the take-off board, Luz Long told the America, “Look, why don’t you draw a line a few inches in 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 first in the trials? Tomorrow is what counts.”
Jesse Owens drew a line about 12 inches behind the board and qualified with over a foot to spare. That night, Owens went to Long’s room in the Olympic Village to thank him and the two talked for several hours. When Jesse left, Luz said he would try to do his best the next day and asked Jesse to do the same.
“As it turned out, Luz broke his own past record,” Jesse wrote. “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 yards away, Luz shook my hand hard—and it wasn’t a fake “smile with a broken heart” sort of grip, either.”
As I mentioned Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the ’36 Olympics in Berlin. His friend Luz Long was killed in action in Sicily during World War II and, in 1960, Jesse Owens thrilled boys my age the world over when, in his closing paragraphs, he wrote, “You can melt down all the gold medals and cups I have, and they couldn’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.”
Don’t you see? Jesse Owens didn’t remember the man who hated him. Instead, he remembered the one who was kind.