Friendship beyond race
In the summer of 1936, the Olympic Games were held in Berlin, Germany. Adolf Hitler stubbornly held to the theory that his athletes belonged to a “superior nation,” and a nationalist frenzy hung over the competition.
I’m not too worried about this situation. For the past 6 years, I have kept the Olympics in my mind, trained hard, put in a lot of sweat and disciplined myself. On the boat ride to the Games, all I thought about was winning a gold medal or two to take home. I keep my focus on the long jump. A year ago, as a college student, I set a world record in the long jump of 8.13 meters. Everyone expects me to win this low-hanging Olympic gold medal in this event.
Surprisingly, when the long jump preliminaries came, I saw a tall athlete who reached 7.9 meters in one of his test jumps! The man was a German named Lutz Lang. I learned that Hitler used him as a secret weapon and expected him to take the gold medal.
My guess is that if Lutz Lang wins, the Nazi theory of “Aryan” superior race might add new grounds. After all, I am a black man. Out of hatred for Hitler’s philosophy, I decided to show the “Führer” and his superior race on the field who is really good and who is nothing more than that.
Every coach has said that aggrieved athletes are the most error-prone. I am no exception. In the first of the three trials in the preliminaries, I stepped out of the springboard a few centimeters and fouled. On the second try, I fouled even harder. “Is this how I came here from far away America?” I thought sadly. “Isn’t I fooling myself by fouling in the preliminaries?”
After coming out of the bunker, I stomped hard on the ground. Suddenly, a hand was on my shoulder, and I turned to see the friendly blue eyes of the tall German long jumper looking at me, and he passed with ease on his first try, getting the right to the final. At this moment, he reached out and squeezed my hand tightly.
”Jesse Owens, this is Lutz Lang. I don’t think we’ve met before.” He spoke English well, though with a little German accent.
”Nice to meet you,” I said. Then, trying to hide my unease, I said, “How are you?”
”I’m fine. The question is: How are you?”
”What do you mean?” I asked.
”Something must be bothering you,” he said—proud as a foreigner to use the American slang term eating (troubled) to interject a conversation into a sentence. “You should get through the preliminaries with your eyes closed.”
”Trust me, I know how,” I told him—and it made me feel good to say that to others.
For the next few minutes, we stood together and chatted. I didn’t tell Lutz Lang what was “annoying” me, but he seemed to understand my resentment and took pains to console me.
Although Lutz Lang was educated in the ideology of the Nazi youth movement, he, like me, did not believe in the superiority of the so-called Aryan race. We sneered at that thought, even though he looked like that.
Lutz Lang was a little taller than me, with yellow hair, crystal blue eyes, and a lanky, muscular build. His face was well defined and handsome. Seeing that I had calmed down, he pointed to the take-off board and said, “Look, why don’t you draw a line a few centimeters in front of the take-off board, and you start the jump with this line as the target? You will definitely not foul again. Now, you can definitely get to the finals. What does it matter if you don’t get first place in the preliminaries? Tomorrow is the most important thing.” In a blink of an eye, all my nervousness seemed to dissipate from my mind. Yes, the truth he said touched me. Immediately and confidently, I drew a line more than 30cm before the take-off board and decided to take off there. On my third try, I finally made it to the final with almost 40cm more than the mark.
That night, I went to Lutz Lang’s room in the Olympic Village to thank him. I knew that if it wasn’t for his guidance, I might not have qualified for the finals the next day. We sat together and talked for two hours about track and field, our own situation, the state of the world, and many other things.
When I got up to say goodbye, we both knew that a true friendship had been forged. Lutz Long will go out to the track and do his best to beat me. Yet I know he also wants me to do my best – even if it means I’m going to win.
The second day of the finals finally came to an end. Lutz Lang surpassed his own previous best. And in this fight, his actions also pushed me to my peak. I remember at the moment of my last jump – setting a new Olympic long jump record – 8.06 meters. He came to me and congratulated me.
Although Hitler watched us from the stands less than 100 meters away, Lutz Lang held my hand tightly with a smile—not the kind of smile that is “feigned with sadness.”
You can melt away all my gold medals and trophies, but you can’t coat them on the most precious friendship I felt for Lutz Lang in that moment. I also realized that Lutz Lang’s behavior was exactly the kind of paradigm that Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, had in mind when he said: “The most important thing in the Olympics is not To win, but to participate. The essence of life is not to conquer, but to strive.”
In addition to winning gold in the long jump, Jesse Owens won 3 gold medals in Berlin – men’s 100m, 200m Sprint and 4 X 400 meter relay. Despite these impressive results, Owens had a tough time returning to the U.S. after the Olympics, having to race horses and dogs to make ends meet. It wasn’t until the 1950s that he secured a living by becoming a spokesperson for certain companies and opening a public relations firm. He died in 1980 at the age of 66. And Lutz Lang died in World War II. Jesse Owens held the long jump world record for 25 years.