It was a noble gesture by German track and field athlete Luz Long. But, for the Nazis in power at the time, it was an outrage.
It happened during the long jump competition at the 1936 Summer Olympics in full view of Adolf Hitler, the Nazi leader sitting in the VIP stand. American athlete Jesse Owens had just made his sixth and final jump, a winning 8.06 meters (26 feet 5 inches). Long approached his rival in the sandpit and congratulated him on his gold medal. Owens would later say, "Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace."
This long jump duel took place on Aug. 4, 1936, in front of an audience of 100,000 people. On the one side was Long, the 23-year-old European record-holder at the time. On the other was Owens, the 22-year-old African-American world record holder. It is one of the legendary contests in the history of track and field. In their obsession with racial superiority, the Nazis had dubbed it the "Battle of the Colors." Long's job was to demonstrate the superiority of the Nordic master race to the rest of the world.
A One-Sided Version of Events
In the intervening decades, it has primarily been Owens' memories of the dramatic contest that have shaped the image of the two athletes. Even without all of the Nazi propaganda surrounding the contest, the two drove each other to perform at their best. What's more, they supposedly became friends. As Owens writes in his 1970 autobiography "Blackthink," a key scene occurred during the qualifying round, when he had one jump left after an invalid jump and another jump that was too short. Long came to his aid, Owen recounts, and gave him the critical tip that would help him safely hit the board.
"You see? That's how easy it is," Long reportedly called out to Owens after he had easily qualified for the finals with his last jump. Then, Owens writes, he shook Long's hand and said the only German word he knew: "Danke" ("Thank you").
There is a famous photo of the two rivals lying on their stomachs on the stadium floor. It depicts two seemingly inseparable young men who look like they're enjoying each other's company. Taken while German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl took a break from making her film about these Olympic Games, the photo has reinforced Owens' version of events.
Contesting the Myth
Owens fueled the myth of his spiritual kinship with the German until his death in 1980. Although they never saw each other again, Owens would claim that he continued to receive touching letters from Long even after World War II had broken out. But, since he was never very meticulous about naming his sources, there have always been doubts about Owens' recollections.
Now Long's son has gathered together documents about the life of his father, who had gone on to become a soldier in the German army and was gravely wounded during a battle in Sicily in 1943. After being captured, he died three days later in a British military hospital. Five years after the war, the German Red Cross would discover his grave in central Sicily.
The still-unpublished collection of source material is entitled "The Luz Long Story -- Athletes in the Third Reich." It is based on family documents, letters, notes and diary entries, as well as on conversations with contemporary witnesses and original excerpts from newspaper reports.
But none of this material provides any evidence to support Owens' claims of his wonderful friendship with Long. Indeed, nothing in it supports either the alleged beginnings of the friendship, when Long allegedly gave his selfless tips during the 1936 Olympics, or its continuation via written correspondence in the years preceding Long's death in 1943.
Balancing the Record
Of course, there is no dispute over whether Long embraced Owens immediately after the end of their duel for the gold medal, or whether he was later reprimanded for it by Rudolf Hess. According to Long's mother, Hitler's deputy had ordered her son to "never embrace a negro again."
A week after the long jump duel, however, Long gave his own version of the event in a story entitled "My Battle with Owens" published in the Neue Leipziger Zeitung, his hometown newspaper. He wrote: "I couldn't help myself. I ran up to him, and I was the first to embrace and congratulate him. He responded by saying: 'You forced me to give my best!'"
In that same article, Long also described what happened after his fifth jump in the main competition, when he achieved his personal best of 7.87 meters. The jump brought the crowd to its feet and Long neck-and-neck with Owens. At that moment during the competition of a lifetime, Long felt completely different emotions.
"One look at the crowd, which refuses to calm down, and then a look at the Führer's box. What? The entire box is in an uproar? The Führer is clapping enthusiastically," Long wrote. "I stand gratefully beneath my Führer to greet him, and I can hardly believe what I see: He stands up, greets me with his benevolent, fatherly smile, and there is only one wish in his eyes: that I may win."