Winning an Olympic gold medal is no small feat; the proof is in the tears of the athletes as they receive their prize on the podium. Behind each of these medals lie many hours of sacrifice. If you don’t believe it, then just ask Michael Phelps, winner of 8 gold medals in Beijing, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, tennis star Rafael Nadal or Italian boxer Robert Camarelle.
But 72 years ago at the Berlin Olympic Games, one athlete won, besides his gold medal, something worth a lot more. Something that changed his life!
Summer of 1936—the Berlin Olympics. Tension surrounded the competition because of the political situation, and the presence of Adolf Hitler in the Olympic Stadium testifies to this.
One athlete was all the rage and stood out among the rest; the so called ‘Antilope of Ebony’. This was the nickname of African-American athlete James Cleveland Owens. “Jesse” Owens, as he was known, won gold in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump. It was a battle to death with the German athletes.
In the long jump a series of events unfolded that astonished the participants and spectators alike. The struggle for gold was between the two favourites: Jesse Owens, 23 years old, born in Alabama to a family who owned little and Lutz Long, 22 years old, tall, blond and blue-eyed, born in Leipzig and the model German athlete.
In the preliminary Lutz Long had already set a new Olympic Record while Jesse Owens had fouled on his first two jumps. One more and he would be eliminated from the competition altogether. In front of some 110,000 spectators in the Berlin Stadium, Long approached Owens who was sitting on the grass, dejected. He advised Owens to risk less and jump in front of the line, even marking with his t-shirt the spot he advised Owens to take off from.
The situation was absolutely unheard of. However, in his final jump Jesse followed Long’s advice and made a fantastic jump with which he qualified for the final.
In the final Long jumped a personal best of 7.87m, but this was beaten by Owens who took Gold and established a new Olympic record with a jump of 8.06 m. As soon as Jesse Owens achieved his winning jump, in front of the entire stadium and Hitler himself, Long was the first to congratulate and embrace the champion and they walked together to the locker room.
Two athletes, two colors, two races. Two ideologies, two persons, two hearts united in a strong embrace. Something greater than their own interests was born.
Long didn’t win Gold in Berlin, but he won what is priceless: the deep friendship of another person. This friendship lasted until the end of his life in 1943. After Long’s death, Owens travelled to Germany to meet Long’s family and remained always concerned for their wellbeing.
Later Owens would say: “They could melt down all of the trophies and medals I have ever won, but it would not be worth as much as the 24-karat friendship I won with Lutz Long at that moment.”
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