My Great­est Olympic Prize

FROM READER’S DI­GEST, OC­TO­BER 1960

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Rd Vault - BY JESSE OWENS

IT WAS THE SUM­MER

of 1936. The Olympic Games were be­ing held in Ber­lin. Be­cause Adolf Hitler in­sisted his coun­try’s ath­letes were mem­bers of a “mas­ter race,” na­tion­al­is­tic feel­ings were at an all-time high.

I wasn’t too wor­ried about all this. I’d trained and sweated for six years with the Games in mind. While I was go­ing over on the boat, all I could think about was tak­ing home one or two of those gold medals. I par­tic­u­larly had my eye on the run­ning broad jump. A year be­fore, as a sopho­more at Ohio State Univer­sity, I’d set the world record of 8.13 me­tres. Ev­ery­one kind of ex­pected me to win that event hands-down.

I was in for a sur­prise. When the time came for the broad-jump tri­als, I was star­tled to see a tall boy hit­ting the pit at al­most 7.9 me­tres on his prac­tice leaps! He turned out to be a Ger­man named Luz Long. I was told that Hitler had kept him un­der wraps, ev­i­dently hop­ing to win the jump with him.

I guessed that if Long won, it would add some sup­port to the Nazis’ Aryan-su­pe­ri­or­ity the­ory. Af­ter all, I am Black. A lit­tle hot un­der the col­lar about Hitler’s ways, I de­ter­mined to go out there and re­ally show der Führer and his mas­ter race who was su­pe­rior and who wasn’t.

An an­gry ath­lete is an ath­lete who will make mis­takes, as any coach will tell you. I was no ex­cep­tion. On the first of my three qual­i­fy­ing jumps, I leaped from sev­eral cen­time­tres be­yond the take­off board for a foul.

On the sec­ond jump, I fouled even worse. Did I come 6,000 kilo­me­tres for this? I thought bit­terly, To foul out of the tri­als and make a fool of my­self?

Walk­ing a few yards from the pit, I kicked at the dirt in dis­gust. Sud­denly, I felt a hand on my shoul­der. I turned to look into the friendly blue eyes of the tall Ger­man broad jumper. He had eas­ily qual­i­fied for the fi­nals on his first at­tempt. He of­fered me a firm hand­shake.

“Jesse Owens, I’m Luz Long. I don’t think we’ve met.” He spoke English well, though with a Ger­man twist.

“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. “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.

For the next few min­utes, we talked. I didn’t tell Luz what was “eat­ing” me, but he seemed to un­der­stand my anger, and he took pains to re­as­sure me. Although he’d been in­doc­tri­nated in the Nazi youth move­ment, he didn’t be­lieve in the Aryan-supremacy busi­ness any more than I did. We laughed over the fact that he re­ally looked the part, though. He had a lean, mus­cu­lar frame, blue eyes, blond hair and a hand­some, chis­elled face. Fi­nally, see­ing that I had calmed down some­what, he pointed to the take­off board.

“Why don’t you draw a line a few cen­time­tres in back of the board and make your take­off from there?” he said. “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.”

The ten­sion seemed to ebb out of my body as the truth of what he said hit me. Con­fi­dently, I drew a line a full 30 cen­time­tres be­hind the board and pro­ceeded to jump from there. I qual­i­fied.

DE­SPITE THE FACT THAT ADOLF HITLER GLARED AT US FROM THE STANDS NOT A

HUN­DRED ME­TRES AWAY, LUZ LONG SHOOK MY HAND HARD.

THAT NIGHT I WALKED

over to Luz’s room in the Olympic vil­lage to thank him. If it hadn’t been for him, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t be jump­ing in the fi­nals the fol­low­ing day. We sat in his quar­ters and talked for two hours— about track and field, our­selves, the world sit­u­a­tion, a dozen other things.

When I fi­nally got up to leave, we both knew that a real friend­ship had been formed. Luz would go out to the field the next day try­ing to outdo me if he could. But I knew that he wanted me to do my best—even if that meant beat­ing him.

As it turned out, Luz broke his own past record. In do­ing so, he in­spired me to de­liver a peak per­for­mance. I re­mem­ber that at the in­stant I landed from my fi­nal jump—the one that set the Olympic record of 8.06 me­tres— he was at my side, con­grat­u­lat­ing me. De­spite the fact that Hitler glared at us from the stands not a hun­dred me­tres away, Luz shook my hand hard—and it wasn’t a fake smile with a bro­ken-hearted grip, either.

You can melt down all the gold medals and cups I have re­ceived, and they wouldn’t come close to out­shin­ing the 24-carat friend­ship I felt for Luz at that moment. He was the epit­ome of what Pierre de Cou­bertin, founder of the mod­ern Olympics, 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.”

Newly minted pals Carl Lud­wig “Luz” Long and Jesse Owens at the Ber­lin Olympics in 1936.

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