Culture

Luz Long, the German athlete who befriended Jesse Owens and helped him win the 1936 Berlin Olympics

On July 13, 1943, a death occurred in the British field hospital in Acate, in the Sicilian province of Ragusa (Italy), which did not particularly attract the attention of the staff. After all, it was an enemy, a obergefreiter (Corporal 1st) of the Luftwaffe who was badly wounded defending the island during the allied invasion and whom the doctors could not save because he bled to death from a thigh wound. He was buried in the Ponte Olico war cemetery, near Gela, in the southern part of Sicily, and it was only in 1950 that the Red Cross discovered that it was Luz Long, that famous athlete who had befriended the famous Jesse Owens. .

Light was a nickname, as his name was actually Carl Ludwig Long. He was born in Leipzig in 1913, into a family of five children whose father was the pharmacist Carl Hermann Long and mother Johanna Hesse, in addition to an illustrious great-great-grandfather, the chemist Justus von Liebig. Carl entered the university of that city to study law and was still studying when he began to practice athletics, excelling in the long jump and triple jump (by the way, his sister Elfriede and his brother Sebastian Heinrich were also successful athletes). .

In fact, his marks were so brilliant that he was selected to represent his country at the European Athletics Championships held in Turin in 1934. At that time, the number of events and competitors was much smaller than today, so the event It only lasted a couple of days, from September 7 to 9, with Germany being the great winner with eleven medals, of which seven were gold, two silver and two bronze; one of the latter was won by Long in long distance with a jump of 7.25 metres. He was then 21 years old, a youth that, together with the good result obtained from him, augured a promising future for him in the sport, as he demonstrated the following year by winning silver at the World University Games.

And, indeed, his consecration came just two years later, when he had already finished his studies and combined the legal profession in Hamburg with competition through the Leipziger Sport Club. It was when the XI Olympic Games arrived, which were to take place in Berlin between August 1 and 16 and constituted the great showcase of the Nazi regime to show the world its splendor with the propaganda work of Goebbels and the staging of Speer . Not in vain would almost four thousand athletes from 49 countries participate.

Long was an unexpected part of that propaganda, with his 1.84 meters tall, his blond hair, his blue eyes and his unmistakably Aryan appearance, which made him one of the German figures. And the delirium came when, after a lavish inauguration that had as its climax the subsequently ill-fated airship hindenburg Flying over the stadium, the first qualifying tests were held and Long broke the European jump record (which he would hold until 1956). Then came the episode that would mark his life and also provide one of the great moments in sports history.

The choice of Berlin as the venue for the Games had been carried out without major problems in 1931, but the rise of Hitler to power two years later changed the panorama and several countries considered not sending their teams, although in the end only Spain was missing, first because of refusal but then because of the outbreak of the Civil War (the USSR was not there either, which did not begin to participate until Helsinki 1952). The US Olympic Committee was one of those who were about to boycott the Games as a sign of rejection of Nazi anti-Semitism, although it finally went. Luckily for the sport because the great star of athletics at that time was American.

Aerial view of the Berlin Olympic Stadium during the 1936 Olympics/Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild, on Wikimedia Commons

His name was Jesse Owens, a native of Oakville, Alabama, he was the same age as Long and, like him, he alternated his studies at the Ohio State University with athletics, in which he excelled extraordinarily; so much so that year after year he accumulated titles from the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association, the association that organized the university championships). On May 25, 1935, he even broke three world records and equaled a fourth in just 45 minutes. One of the marks that he established – and that would last a quarter of a century – was the long jump, with 8.15 meters. Thus, in Berlin the world record holder and the European were going to face each other but with an added morbidity because if Long was a racial archetype for the Nazis, Owens was for them a subhuman: americans should be ashamed of themselves letting blacks win gold medals for them in Hitler’s words.

In fact, Owens began his participation on the first day of the Berlin Games by winning the 100 meter dash. However, he also made two failures in the length classification, which, paradoxically, was on the verge of elimination. That left the path to gold clear for a Long who, as we saw, in that same phase had just beaten the European record. But he did not react as expected and took the Olympic spirit to one of its highest levels by approaching his rival and advising him that, instead of rushing to the board, he should start the last and final jump a little earlier, as he had done him, knowing that the American used to obtain records much larger than the required 7.15 meters; he even put a handkerchief 20 centimeters from the line as an indicator. Owens listened to him and, in effect, managed to overcome them with a comfortable 10 centimeters of margin.

The next day the final was played -immortalized by Leni Riefenstahl’s camera in her Fest der Völker (Festival of Nations), first part of its famous movie Olympia– and although Long managed to jump 7.87, Owens smashed that mark with 8.06, beating the Olympic record and rising to the top of the podium; the bronze went to the Japanese Naoto Tajima (who would later win the triple jump, also with a world record). But all this was somewhat overshadowed by what came after. And it is that Owens also won the 200 and 4 x 100 tests, shattering Nazi expectations and it was said that Hitler left the stadium to avoid having to shake his hand. This was stated, for example, by Albert Speer.

Perhaps the architect of the regime was only looking to unload responsibilities on his leader (Speer received a very light sentence after the war), since the truth is that the Fuhrer He only greeted the two German medalists on the first day and as the Olympic Committee asked him to greet all or none, he chose the latter; Owens himself declared that they exchanged greetings and other witnesses ratified it. In addition, he received a written congratulations from the German government, which contrasted with the contemptuous treatment he received in his own country, where Roosevelt totally ignored him when he was in the midst of an electoral campaign and trying to attract the vote of the southern states.

All this was left aside from the exquisite behavior of Long, who was the first to run to warmly congratulate his partner and accompany him to the locker room with his arms around him, to the astonishment of the Nazi authorities (Rudolf Hess warned him after “never hug a black man again” and the press criticized him for his lack of racial awareness). Something that made him go down in history, even though his sports career was more than remarkable: it is true that he was tenth in the triple jump but in 1937 he won gold at the World University Games and the following year, at the European Championships in Paris. , the bronze in length jumping 7.56 meters. Between 1933 and 1937 he had broken five continental records.

There he finished his stage in athletics because in 1939 he obtained a doctorate in Law with a thesis entitled Die Leitung des Sports durch den Staat, eine entwicklungstechnische Darstellung (Management of sports by the state. Representation of technical development) and entered the Hamburg Labor Court. It was then that he joined the SA and the Nazi Party, something that can only be understood by the need for it in order to exercise, since it does not seem to square with what was shown in 1936; especially considering that the friendship he made with Jesse Owens on the track and in the Olympic village lasted over time and they used to write to each other regularly.

Like everyone else, the outbreak of the Second World War changed his life, fatally in his case. Given his athletic status, he was appointed sports instructor in Wismar (in present-day Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania) and in 1941 he became a legal adviser. But in 1943 he was assigned to the 1st Panzer Parachute Division Hermann Göring, an elite Luftwaffe unit, with which he defended the San Pietro airfield from American attack. We have already seen what his tragic end was, although his son tells that he was never taken to a hospital but died in combat, according to the testimony of a comrade of his named Robert Stadler, the body not being found until seven years later. In 1961 his remains were transferred from Gela to the neighboring town of Motta Sant’Anastasia, where a cemetery was set up for the Germans who had fallen in the war.

Owens fulfilled one of the promises he had made to him in their epistolary exchange and in the post-war period he got in touch with his son Kai-Heinrich, who was still a child (he was born in 1941 and had a brother who died in 1944) but whom he he visited later, in 1964, both posing in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin for a documentary and being his best man at their wedding. According to some sources, two years before that meeting, the International Olympic Committee had awarded Long, posthumously, the first Pierre de Coubertin Medal, an award that rewards those who stand out for their sportsmanship during the Olympics; his son, on the other hand, assures in the biography he made of his father that they never gave it to him.

He has also been honored by baptizing various sports facilities in Germany with his name, but the memory he left was expressed by no one better than Owens himself: «All the medals and cups I won could be melted down, and they would be worth nothing compared to the twenty-four-carat friendship I made with Luz Long at that time».


Sources

Light Long. Eine sportlerkarriere im Dritten Reich: sein leben in dokumenten und bildern (Kai-Heinrich Long)/Lutz Long (Corrado Rubino)/Jesse Owens. «I Always Loved Running» (Jeff Burlingame)/A Passion for Victory: The Story of the Olympics in Ancient and Early Modern Times (Benson Bobrick)/The Nazi Olympics (Richard D. Mandell)/SR Olympic Sports/Wikipedia


Back to top button