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Competition in the classic style

Feb 24, 2013 - By Mark Shields

Never was it demonstrated better than between Jesse Owens and Luz Long.

He stood alone atop the podium as the "Star Spangled Banner" played for the fourth and final time. It was a surreal setting, the 48-star flag fluttering against the backdrop of brazen black-and-green swastikas.

In the center of the grandstand the man who would forever be linked with evil, cruelty, torture and global totalitarianism made it a point to turn the other way and consciously ignore the young Ohio State University track star.

The story of Jesse Owens is America in microcosm. Though he and his teammates made history in the summer of 1936, none of them could eat in the same restaurant as their white teammates, stay in the same hotel, or even travel on the same deck of the passenger ship that brought them to Berlin. American racism wasn't much better than the type the Nazis practiced.

In all there were 18 Black Americans competing in Olympic Games that summer in Berlin. Owens, Ralph Metcalfe, Mack Robinson and Archie Williams all took home gold, silver and bronze in the 100, 200, 400, long jump and 120 yard high hurdles. The American trio of David Albritton, Cornelius Johnson, and Delos Thurber swept the high jump, with Johnson setting the Olympic record at 6-8.

They weren't supposed to win. They weren't even supposed to compete against Hitler's Aryan supermen. But, prejudiced or not, Americans like to win. In spite of severe discrimination at home, these men competed with dignity and honor for the United States.

Much has been made of Hitler not shaking hands with Owens or any of the other African-American Olympians as he did with all of the Caucasian winners, but the usually stoic Owens let us in on his true feelings when he was asked to comment on it.

"Although I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either," Owens said, referring to President Franklin Roosevelt.

It's been almost 77 years since the Nazi games, and much of the world has changed. Sadly, much remains the same.

We live in a caustic, mean-spirited time dominated by bloviated talking heads that constantly preach doom and destruction. No wonder the overall attitude of Americans is overwhelmingly negative.

It is negative in the mainstream news, its negative at the water cooler, or in Wyoming's version of it -- two pickups beside each other with their engines running, parked in the middle of a country road. It is negative in the grandstands and on the airwaves as everyone who watches a sporting event is somehow more knowledgeable than the coaches on the sidelines or the officials on the floor.

It is a worrisome and wearying process, but if you are a student of history, bright spots can shine amid the gloom.

Many people recognize the name Jesse Owens, but few know that Owens, who had a degree from Ohio State, had to augment his income by racing quarter horses in 40-yard dashes at county fairs in the years between his gold medal performance and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

While his unique running style and quiet elegance have always impressed me, it was his friendship with German long jumper Luz Long that is perhaps most compelling.

Long was the reigning world champion in the long jump and nearly mechanically perfect in his approach. He was also Hitler's personal favorite. While Owens was a fabulous long jumper, he was erratic, often faulting on all of his preliminary jumps and not even making the finals in the event.

Long led the long jump after the preliminaries in 1936. Owens had narrowly faulted on his first two jumps and had only one jump remaining in the preliminary flight.

In an act of incredible bravery, Long ignored the obvious, glaring displeasure of Hitler and approached his American competitor. Long suggested that Owens back up his starting point by a foot to get a safe jump in so he could make the finals. Owens accepted the advice and advanced.

In the final round Luz broke the world record on his second attempt, but Owens beat Long on his final jump and was crowned world champion. His record held until Bob Beamon broke it at Mexico City in 1968, 32 years later.

The poster child of the Aryan "master race" forever bound in friendship to the grandson of an American slave. It was an improbable friendship that lasted a lifetime. War and distance separated the duo, but they continued to write to each other in spite of their nations being at war.

"It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler," Owens said. "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."

Long's most telling letter was his last one from the battle lines.

"My heart is telling me that this is perhaps the last letter of my life. If that is so, I beg one thing from you. When the war is over, please go to Germany, find my son, and tell him about his father. Tell him about the times when war did not separate us, and tell him that things can be different between men in this world. Your brother, Luz."

Long was killed at San Pietro, Italy on July 13. 1943 in a battle with the American 82nd Airborne.

In 1951, Owens returned to Germany and was hailed by more than 70,000 Germans at the same Olympic Stadium.

He found Long's son and fulfilled his friend's final request.

Owens and Long -- the essence of fair competition.

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