“Find the good. It’s all around you. Find it, showcase it and you’ll start believing it.”  –Olympiad Jesse Owens.

Black History Month is in February, as well as the Olympics, so Slice of Life will highlight the extraordinary life of Olympian and civil rights advocate, Jesse Owens. Be sure to read Part 2 in next week’s column–there is much more to this inspiring story!

It was 1936, the world was focused on the summer Olympic performance of African-American track and field star Jesse Owens. At 22 years old, he had broken many world records already, in spite of racial epithets and prejudicial mistreatment back home. Under tremendous pressure, Owens made history on the world stage, foiling Hitler’s plan to use the Olympics as propaganda for his evil Nazi regime plans. 86 years later, few of us may know about an unlikely friendship made as a part of Owens’s victory. So read on!

In the span of three days, Owens earned four Olympic gold medals in 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay, and long jump, which no other Olympian had done. (His record stood for 48 years before being broken by another African American hero, Carl Lewis, at the 1984 Olympics.)

Before finally clinching the gold in his last event, the long jump, Owens was truly struggling in the trials to qualify for the final–despite the fact that he was already the world-record holder in the long jump. He needed a distance of 23 1/2 feet to qualify.

On his first attempt, still wearing his tracksuit, Owen thought he was just making a practice run and landed into the pit, not realizing the judges had already raised their flags to signify the beginning of the competition.

Discouraged, Owens fouled his next try as well;  he had just one more try to qualify. Just then, advice came from an unlikely ally; German contender Luz Long had been observing closely and figured out what Owens needed to do. Long walked up to Owens and then suggested Owens needed to take off well before the foul line in order to avoid repeating the same first two failures.

Luz Long and Jesse Owens in 1936 in Berlin 1936. (Photo credits belong to Reader’s Digest © 1960).

Owens changes his mark by placing a towel in the new spot. Following Long’s advice, Owens sprinted on his final try and leaped a foot before the foul line, jumping 25 feet on his final try—more than enough to qualify for the final, along with Long.

Owens did go on to earn that fourth gold medal, setting a new Olympic record (8.06m.) Long got the silver (7.87m), and was the first to congratulate Owens. They walked arm-in-arm, circling the stadium, shining a light on the transcending power of respect and true, outstanding sportsmanship.

Jesse Owens later wrote: “It took a lot of courage for him 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 friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace,” 

This unlikely friendship between Long and Owens is a testimony to the goodness and outstanding sportsmanship– a lesson our world desperately needs.

Jesse Owens passed away on  March 31, 1980, at a time I was touring with the International cast of Up With People.  Owens served on the Board of Directors for UWP, an educational organization whose mission is to inspire young people from around the globe to make a difference in their world and “build bridges of understanding” through their performances and volunteer work. Members of our cast were invited to sing at Owen’s funeral, and returned with true stories to tell, including the one I share today. It’s a story my parents knew, having been teenagers in 1936.  It’s a true story of a noble friendship that deserves to be told again. A story that celebrates our shared humanity and the power of respect and love.

The lyrics in the song “Where the Roads Come Together” sung at Owen’s funeral include:

For life is a journey
And there are many roads beneath the sky
And there are many good people
Who don’t see eye to eye.

Fortunately, Luz Long and Jesse Owens DID, in fact, see eye to eye in a way that truly mattered–their transcendent connection as people. As Owens later wrote,

“The only bond worth anything between human beings is their humanness.” –Jesse Owens

 

References:

Quote source: Jesse Owens, Champion Athlete, by Tony Gentry

Lyrics from the song “Where the Roads Come Together,” © 1971 by Up with People upwithpeople.org

YouTube Video of “Where the Roads Come Together” by Up with People in 1973.

YouTube Video of “Where the Roads Come Together” – Up with People Tapestry Cast 2.0 Virtual Chorus

 

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