Small steps before the giant leap

 

DEFINING MOMENTS:IN AUGUST 2009, the American track and field team appeared in Berlin for the first time since Jesse Owens’ generation of Olympians had been in the city during the uneasy summer of 1936.

Through the decades between those dates, Owens’ accomplishments in those Games have acquired mythological status. Because of Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia, the Berlin Olympics are largely preserved as an ominous document of what proved to be the apogee of Nazi propaganda (Walter Winchell, of the New York Daily Mirror would describe Riefenstahl herself as being “as pretty as a swastika” when the documentary was released in 1938) and delusion.

And those Games offered the most vivid and enduring proof that not only do sport and politics mix, they are frequently inseparable. Germany dominated the medals table during the Games but all of the athletic feats have been reduced to the symbolic story of Owens forcing Adolf Hitler to sit and witness – if not acknowledge – an African-American and not any of the Aryan competitors as the pre-eminent athlete in the world.

The Berlin Olympics was all smoke and mirrors: if visitors looked past the dazzling pageantry and the lavish entertainments provided for dignitaries, there was plenty evidence of catastrophe brewing.

Visitors to the Olympiastadion today are drawn there because the building is one of the few remaining legacies of the Nazi era and because it remains the dormant theatre for Owens’ enduring legacy. The tree-lined road near the stadium has been named after the American athlete, and because the architecture of the stadium is much the same as it was then, it is not all that difficult to imagine the atmosphere in the place when Owens stormed to victories in the 100m and 200m dash. Owens’ prowess on that cinder track gave us perhaps the most celebrated and symbolic wins in the history of the Olympic movement. The precise circumstances of Hitler’s refusal to shake his hand have been spun many different ways – the claim has been made that he simply left the stadium at the usual time and didn’t go out of his way to avoid Owens.

But Hart Davis in his book Hitler’s Olympics is adamant that the Fuhrer, in response to the suggestion by Baldur von Schirach, the Reich Youth leader, that posing for photographs with Owens would enhance Germany’s international reputation, replied angrily: “Do you really think that I will allow myself to be photographed shaking hands with a negro?”

Wherever the truth lies, Hitler’s refusal to acknowledge Owens hardly ranks among his most serious crimes against humanity. And Owens, for his part, was no stranger to white slights having grown up in segregation-era America.

But the most intriguing sub-plot to Owens brief, shining time in Berlin was the friendship he fostered with Germany’s long jump champion Karl Long. It is beyond dispute that Owens had got himself into a bit of hot water in the qualifying heats. Owens had jumped a world record 26ft 8in the previous May, a record that would stand for a quarter of a century.

Because he was so good at the discipline, he could sometimes be cavalier in his approach to it. In the Olympiastadion, what he thought was a warm-up attempt was counted as a first jump by officials. Disconcerted by this, Owens fouled on his second jump, leaving him with just one jump left with which to clear the qualifying distance.

It was then that ‘Luz’ Long, quintessentially Aryan in appearance, sauntered up the American and introduced himself and advised Owens to choose a jumping point several inches behind the take-off marker, pointing out that he would comfortably cover the 23ft 5in qualifying distance anyway. Owens did so, duly qualified and in the afternoon final, he engaged in a terrific jumping duel with Long, setting an Olympic record of 26ft 5.5in in the process.

In the flickering black and white film of that jump, Owens had no sooner hit the sand pit than Long comes bounding into the frame, helping the victor up and offering congratulations which are visibly beyond token. Given that the show of sportsmanship took place in front of the Nazi party apparatchiks, it showed unusual courage on Long’s behalf.

But it also demonstrated the mixed-up ideology of the time: whatever about the Fuhrer’s attitudes to Owens, the German public was enthralled by him. The gesture was the beginning of a friendship but the veracity of their exchange has been questioned down the years. There are varying accounts.

Werner Texxo, who was 16 during the Berlin games, told Tom Fordyce of the BBC in 2009 that he witnessed Long’s advice with his own eyes. “He just went over the board and it looked like he must go out,” the Berliner recalled. “Later on I understood what those conversations were about. Luz told Owens some tips – that he was taking off too close and that he should move back a little.”

However, the acclaimed American sportswriter Grantland Rice later reported that he had kept a pair of binoculars trained on Owens during the qualifying session and did not see any communication between the pair. Tom Acker, the noted Olympic historian put the question to Owens in 1965 and said the American admitted that he had concocted the story for the sake of a filmed conversation he had with Long’s son Kai in a documentary made a year previously.

Acker maintains that Owens told him that he and Long didn’t speak until after the competition.

Owens died in 1980, his 20-a-day-habit catching up with him. Long had departed much earlier: he was fatally wounded in action in Sicily in 1943 and is buried there.

The conflicting reports leave more questions than answers. It seems hardly likely that the two men spent the day competing in the long jump without exchanging a word. And could Grantland Rice really have kept his field glasses trained on Owens for the entire session?

But the precise moment that their friendship began hardly matters now. Jesse Owens’ glittering four-gold summer deserves to be saluted for its athletic significance alone but it will always be held up as the most elegant refutation of Hitler’s diabolical beliefs.

Owens was at once treated as a hero and a second class citizen when he returned home, famously taking the trade entrance into the Astoria Waldorf hotel to attend a function being held in his honour. A letter that Long wrote to Owens not long before he was killed reportedly contained the request: “Someday find my son . . . let him know how things can be between men.”

That much did happen and the request may have prompted Owens to exaggerate the conversation they shared. But Long’s gesture of congratulations after Owens’ victorious jump is preserved in black and white. It was a moment of spontaneous sportsmanship.

In front of the abominable Hitler and in the midst of that ominous summer where fierce national pride mingled with fantasy and fanaticism and racial hatred, here was the most simple gesture of a friendship which transcended race, colour and nationality. It would prove to be a tiny, lasting victory.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.