Owens-Long relationship a victory for humanity

Jesse Owens, center, salutes during the presentation of

Jesse Owens, center, salutes during the presentation of his gold medal for the long jump, after defeating Germany's Lutz Long, right, during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Naoto Tajima of Japan, left, placed third. The performance of Jesse Owens will be honored in the stadium where he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games when the world championships are held in Berlin this month. (Aug. 11, 1936) (Credit: AP)

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

bio | email | twitter

Few Olympic gospels of peace and brotherhood are more powerful than the one that will be invoked at this month’s world track and field championships in Berlin, where the descendants of Jesse Owens and German long jumper Luz Long will celebrate common humanity as much as Owens’ legendary triumphs of 1936.

In a series of appearances during the Aug. 15-23 meet, and by together awarding the championships’ long-jump medals on Aug. 22, Owens’ granddaughter, Marlene Dortch, and Long’s son, Kai, will pass the torch for the rarely achieved but endlessly sought ideal of international sport.

Owens, of course, was the black son of American sharecroppers whose four gold medals, won right under Adolph Hitler’s mustache, played havoc with Nazi propoganda portraying Negroes as inferior and taunting the United States team for relying on “black auxiliaries.” More daring than Owens’ performances, though -- and, ultimately, more morally enlightening -- were the public gestures of Long, whose advice in the heat of competition was credited by Owens for assuring his victory in that event.

According to Owens’ later accounts and to Olympic historians, the heavily favored Owens had become unsettled during the long jump warmups by the presence of the tall, blue-eyed, blond Long — the very epitome of Hitler’s “Ayran superiority” bunkum. When long jump officials counted Owens’ loosening-up run, jogging right through the pit while still wearing his sweatsuit, as the first of his three preliminary jumps — and thus a foul — he was so rattled he fouled again on his second attempt.

In danger of failing to proceed to the event’s final, though he was world-record holder at the time, Owens was surprised to hear Long casually introduce himself, in English, and initiate a friendly chat that ended with Long’s suggestion: Since the qualifying distance for the final was more than three feet short of Owens’ personal best, Owens should move back the starting point of his run-up, thereby guaranteeing a legal jump.

Owens proceeded to qualify easily, then to outduel Long for the victory, 26-feet, 5 1/2 inches to Long’s 25-10. Whereupon Long, in full view of the Fuhrer, was the first to congratulate Owens, and subsequently to walk from the stadium arm-in-arm with the American. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have,” Owens later wrote, “and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”

Only seven years later, Long was killed in action in World War II, enlisted by the other side, but Owens continued to correspond with his family until Owens’ own death in 1980. Since then, Dortch said in a teleconference last week, another Owens’ granddaughter, Dortch’s older sister Gina Hemphill, has met and exchanged e-mails with Long’s niece and granddaughter. As Owens himself was a treated as a celebrity among the German masses 73 years ago — he was mobbed wherever he went in Berlin and even awakened at the Olympic Village by fans thrusting autograph books into his bedroom window — Hemphill reported feeling “like a rock star” the first time she visited Berlin in the 1990s.

“To me, the Olympics is what happened between Jesse Owens and the German long jumper, Luz Long, in Berlin,” wrote Marty Glickman, the 1936 Olympic sprinter who later achieved fame as a sportscaster, wrote in his 1996 book, “The Fastest Kid on the Block.” “Jesse took Long’s advice ... He was always grateful to Long for the camaraderie, the friendship, and the warmth they developed.”

In England last week, Harry Patch, listed as the last survivor who fought for Britain in World War I, died at 111. He was hailed not as a patriotic warrior, but as a man who hated war and preached in his final years that, “Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims.” At memorial events he attended late in life, he urged, “Remember the Germans” who had been the enemy, and among the uniformed, honorary pallbearers at his funeral were soldiers not only from allies Belgium and France but also Germany.

The Owens-Long connection -- as politically and ideologically dicey as it was, given the politics of the ‘36 Berlin Games as World War II loomed -- hardly matches the meeting of enemy soldiers on the battlefield. But Owens-Long lives as evidence of the possibilities, when people see something of themselves in the most unlikely places and settings. And elite athletes, like soldiers, certainly share an identity apart from the flags their leaders fly or the uniforms they wear.

The fact that U.S. track athletes will wear the initials “JO” on their singlets this month in the same stadium where Owens starred more than 70 years ago is a nice enough touch. Better is the recollection of Long’s role in that history, and what USA Track and Field CEO Doug Logan called “a focus for the way our sport, and all sports in general, can add to the international understanding and the relationship of people who come from all walks of life, all ethnicities and all races.”

It’s corny, dreamy stuff. But the offspring of Jesse Owens and Luz Long know why they are forever connected.