The story of (Owens and Long) will not fade with time, so resonant is its message with humankind – excerpt from the publication, Heat of the Moment.
Bigger than Athletics
In the 1936 Olympic games, American track and field athlete Jesse Owens was under immense pressure. Olympics taking place in Berlin, Germany, Adolf Hitler viewed these games as a platform to prove Aryan supremacy. Owens had a different plan. In three days, Owens had shattered Hitler’s plans by winning gold in the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay events. Owens had one more event to compete in, the long jump. In what he thought was a practice jump, Owens took it in his warm-up suit. Upon landing in the pit, Owens was shocked to see the judges holding up red flags, a sign that Owens had fouled the jump, and it was his first attempt. Owens then fouled on his second jump again by stepping on the white line. With only one attempt left. Owens needed to make sure he didn’t foul and make the required distance to qualify. Then in an act of unprecedented sportsmanship, fellow long jump competitor Luz Long, a German, came to the aid of the American. Long gave Owens the suggestion to take off well before the foul line. The American heeded the German’s advice. Not only did Owens make the jump, but he went on to win the gold, putting an obvious wrench in Hitler’s plan.
A Different View
Long risked hatred and persecution by reaching across racially and politically charged lines at the time to help Owens. He saw the games differently from Hitler. While Hitler sought to prove supremacy, Long sought to build a relationship. After Jesse Owens won, Long was the first to congratulate Owens and walk around the track arm-in-arm with Owens. This small gesture from Long struck a long-standing friendship between the two men who, according to the times they lived in, should not have been friends. Their relationship transcended race, politics, economics, and any other barrier erected. Owens later reflected on that moment in Berlin:
“It took a lot of courage for him (Long) to befriend me. You can melt down all the medals, and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat relationship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.”
Long and Owens remained friends until Long’s death on the battlefield during World War II. In his final letter to Owens, Long recalled their meeting at the Olympics, saying, “…I know it is never by chance that we came together. I came to you in that hour in 1936 for a purpose more than the der Berliner Olympiade.”
Choosing the Greater
In those few minutes in Berlin, Owens and Long rocked the cradle of Aryan supremacy by choosing something of greater value than athletic accomplishments. Their story is an attention-getter in terms of living for a greater purpose. The greater value and purpose of forming a friendship in a Swastika-soaked environment was proof positive that when we place others first and serve them, no other reward in life is comparable.
Taking the Risk
When Long saw Owens struggling, he could have shrugged his shoulders and kept his focus on winning the long jump gold medal. Instead, he went against the grain and served Owens. There were a plethora of risks built into Long’s decision to help Jesse. First, Long, the image and representative of Aryan supremacy, was risking his reputation by talking to Owens, a black American. Second, as a fellow long jumper and medal contender, Long giving Owens advice would seem to take away his advantage of winning the gold medal. Long absorbed these risks and many more, but the gain of a friendship with Owens was well worth the risk.
While many seek to raise their quality of living by acquiring material possessions, I believe the best way to raise your quality of life is by serving others. While Long had the extrinsic qualities that qualified him as a typical Aryan, his intrinsic qualities of authenticity and humility won the day.
Win the Day
How did Long and Owens win the day? By flipping the script and changing the narrative against the backdrop of Hitler’s evil plan. It did not seem like the opportune time for Long to serve, but opportunities to do good rarely come with convenience. We overcome evil with good anytime we go against the grain and choose to put others first and serve them, regardless of the convening circumstances.
Final Thought: We live in a racially and politically charged environment. Learning from Long and Owens, we need not allow the times to dictate our lives. We can transcend the times by expressing the intrinsic qualities that move us to connect and serve others as Long did in 1936. Don’t wait for convenience but take advantage of the opportunities presented your way to serve. In doing so, you will serve a greater purpose, win the day and live a high-quality life.
Keep on keeping on!