A world famous legend recalling how German Luz Long crossed racial barriers to help American rival Jesse Owens qualify for the long jump final at the 1936 Olympics has been downplayed by Long’s son, Kai.
Kai Long said his father, whose actions helped Owens win the gold, prompting a furious Adolf Hitler to leave the stadium early, had simply acted within the old tradition of amateur sportsmanship.
“It was not a question of race, of being black and white,” said Kai Long, who attended the world athletics to watch the long jump final.
The 1936 Games, which the US came close to boycotting because of concerns over anti-Semitism, were marked by the performances of Owens. The son of a US slave, the “Black Pearl” won four gold medals from the 100m and 200m, the men’s relay and the long jump.
Luz Long was one of several athletes held up as a symbol of Hitler’s supposedly superior Aryan race but his actions appeared to demonstrate his dismissal of that notion, giving Owens advice that led to the American’s victory and the German settling for silver.
Owens said Luz Long went to him and advised that he jump from a spot several inches behind the line — advice that allowed the him to advance safely to the next round without risking another foul.
Owens won the gold, thus ridiculing Hitler’s claims of Aryan superiority, and went on to build a friendship with Luz Long, who died during World War II.
His son Kai insisted his father, who died of battle wounds in 1943 in Sicily, was not making a political statement to Hitler that black and white people were equals.
“It was the normal attitude of pure amateur sportsmen in those days,” he said. “It was absolutely normal to help each other so what he did was not deemed then to be extraordinary.”
Kai Long, who met Owens five times, did not deny that from that gesture something amazing had been born.
“This flame became bright, then brighter and even more bright and is still burning today,” Kai said.
If proof were needed that flame is still alive, the grandaughters of both Long and Owens, Julie Long and Marlene Dortch respectively, presented the medals for the long jump on Saturday.
Dortch, who said she never talked about the episode with her grandfather, drew on the example of Rosa Parks, “the mother of the modern day civil rights movement,” who refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.
“I would draw a comparison with Rosa Parks who did not deliberately sit down on the bus as a protest against racial discrimination but because she was tired and thought she deserved to have a seat,” Dortch said.
“I believe it is the same with Jesse Owens and Luz Long, who may not have intended to make a statement. However, I think it was very courageous of them to talk with each other and for Luz Long to help him,” she said. “It may not have been planned but you cannot deny it was inspirational.”
Long never had a chance to speak to his father about the moment because he was born in 1941.
Meanwhile, Dortch was surprised to be informed that she, her family and that of Long’s would be sitting where Hitler and his acolytes, such as propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, had sat during those Games.
“I didn’t realize that,” Dortch said. “Well, it feels great to think that I will be sitting with my husband where Hitler once sat.”