The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games had an incomparable hero, a cursed film and one of the most wonderful and inspiring stories of rivalry and friendship. The hero was Jesse Owens, an American, the son of slaves living on a cotton farm in Alabama, and winner of the 100 and 200-meter dash, the 4×100 relay, and the long jump. Owens was the head enemy of Adolf Hitler who sought to strengthen the sinister theory of Aryan superiority through “his” Olympic Games of his. Hard to digest, then, so much glory for a black athlete. Nothing too different from what happened to Owens back home when, some time after being greeted with a caravan through the streets of Manhattan, he had to earn his bread by even running races against horses.
The cursed movie was Olympia, an audiovisual masterpiece the likes of which this type of competition has never seen. It didn’t happen before, it didn’t happen then, it didn’t happen after. There are just over three hours in black and white during which there is no limit in the search for shots to celebrate the excellence of the best athletes in the world. Cursed because its director, the extraordinary Leni Rifenstahl, was considered Hitler’s favorite filmmaker. To be fair, Leni put as much care into that anthology piece as she did in the footage she did to honor various National Socialist Party celebrations.
The milestone set by Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was adapted for film. (Focus Features)
Finally, the statement remains that of the endearing rivalry.
Kings without a crown moral champions. anonymous heroes.
Let’s call them what we want, the history of sport in general and of Olympics in particular is littered with figures who didn’t need to be winners to leave an indelible mark. Not only did they not need a gold medal. Sometimes, they didn’t even need to get on the podium to deny those who insist that it only matters to be first, that no one remembers second.
Luz Long, German, European champion in the long jump in 1935, was one of those icons who did much more for the sport than winning a title that, in the end, was left in the hands of another.
Opposite, Owens, who had already become champion in the 100 meters when on August 4, 1936 they met in front of the sandbox of the Olympic stadium.
In the presidential box, whose structure remained unchanged until today almost so that no one would forget the dark side of the past, Hitler hyperkinetically witnessed the development of a test that, for his disastrous claims of racial hegemony, became key.
It was easy to see that Long met all the aesthetic requirements of that delirium that, sadly, transcended supremacist madness far beyond sports. Tall, muscular, blond and with light eyes, he represented something like the identikit of Hitler’s perfect imaginary Aryan, characteristics that were not exactly those of the main person responsible for the greatest humanitarian tragedy in our history.
As currently happens, the test consisted of a qualifying phase and a final. Unlike today, there were not 12 athletes who surpassed the first selection but all those who exceeded 7m15 -16 competitors did it-, there was a semifinal instance and only six competitors made the final three jumps of the competition held entirely on 4 of August. Not a minor detail: in addition to the nine jumps, Owens ran the first round that same day and the semifinals of the 200 meters, a competition that he would win the following day.
After the first two jumps of the knockout stage, Owens was unmarked. The local referees had punished him with two nulls. Although I have no record of corroborating audiovisual testimony, some chronicles of the time claim that in neither of the two cases had the American stepped on the table beyond the allowed limit. Other chronicles assure that, in such a circumstance, it was Long himself who suggested to Owens that he mark a jump position with his training suit far enough from the board so that no one would dare to punish him given that the required mark it was almost three feet shorter than the world record Jesse had set a year earlier in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
In fact, despite the pressure and the confusion -it is difficult to imagine being cheated in an Olympic game and in front of a crowd- Owens passed the wheel with a time of 7m64, the best of the day.
The final quickly made it clear that it was an affair of two. Owens was always in front and in the third wheel he surpassed the Olympic record with a mark of 7m87. Long stunned him by equaling the record on a fifth attempt and took the lead on the tiebreak thanks to his previous jump of 7m84 having been the second best in the final. Immediately, Owens jumped 7m94, Long closed his performance with a null and, in the sixth stage, the champion established himself with an extraordinary mark of 8m06.
Beyond the unquestionable sporting excellence of this final, the added value and, surely, the most powerful memory are those of the image of Long being the first to congratulate Owens and carry him with his arm raised in triumph in front of an audience German who, according to legend, joined the chorus of “Owens, Owens, Owens” started by the German athlete himself. All in front of Hitler, who couldn’t hide his indignation at a new victory right under his nose by a black athlete. He still did not know that to his chagrin he was missing two chapters: in the following days, the North American would add the 200 and the 4×100 post to seal the record of four gold medals in the same tournament.
That August 4, in addition, a powerful friendship was born, sustained in a constant correspondence between Jesse and Luz.
Luz Long y Jesse Owens
On July 10, 1943, Long, a member of the Wehrmacht in action during the invasion of Sicily, was wounded during the battle of Biscari-Santo Pietro and died four days later in a field hospital run by British troops.
In his last letter, he asked Owens to contact his son Karl. “I want you to tell him how things were in other times, when war didn’t separate us; I mean, that he knows how different things can be between men, ”he concluded.
And Owens not only complied with the request but also co-starred with the son of his rival-friend in the beautiful documentary Jesse Owens returns to Berlin.
For history will remain the moment in which it was decided to name one of the avenues near the Berlin Coliseum after the champion and the horse races with which Owens had to earn his bread given how quickly they forgot about his epic .
Also, a reflection from Owens that synthesizes everything. “He had a lot of nerve fraternizing with me in front of Hitler. You could melt down all the medals and cups I won, and they would be worth nothing compared to the 24-carat friendship I made with Luz Long at that time.
In recent months there have been several cases of Ukrainian tennis players failing to greet their rivals from Russia and Belarus after the match. And they harshly criticized them in subsequent statements. No one should question the degree of suffering these girls must feel as they destroy their country and murder their compatriots. However, none of his rivals spoke out in favor of Putin or the invasion. More than that. Some of them clearly spoke out against and repudiated the decision of the head of government of their country, with the risk that we know this can represent. No measure taken in this regard would be entirely fair. And sport is increasingly intertwined at the crossroads. Not to mention when we get to Paris 2024.
Like the War itself, it is difficult for sport to find the right measure for such nonsense.
Who knows if the legend of a tall, blond, blue-eyed German honoring the triumph of a black American rival in front of Hitler himself, without considering the consequences, could not be a source of inspiration. Or, at least, a reminder: hardly the politicians, inside the sport and outside it, are capable or have the intention to find an adequate solution.
Maybe it’s time for the athletes themselves to take charge of the issue and know how to see the difference between wanting to jump higher, run faster or be stronger and annihilate the one next to them for an insane and sinister ambition for power.
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