Jesse Owens made history by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But he would not have accomplished the amazing feat had it not been for his surprising friendship with German athlete Carl Ludwig Hermann “Luz” Long.
As an African-American, Owens, 23, was under intense pressure to perform on the home turf of German dictator Adolph Hitler. Despite the political climate of the day, Owens was befriended by Long, who helped him win the gold medal in the long jump.
After two failed attempts in the long jump trials, Long suggested Owens change his mark and start his jump before the foul line so he would not scratch on his final jump.
“Suddenly all the tension seemed to ebb out of my body as the truth of what he said hit me,” Owens would later recall. “Confidently, I drew a line a full foot in back of the board and proceeded to jump from there. I qualified with almost a foot to spare.”
Owens went on to win the gold medal with an Olympic record jump of 8.06 meters (26 feet, 5 ½ inches) while Long finished second at 7.87m. In the ultimate act of sportsmanship, Long was the first to congratulate Owens, embracing him in front of a crowd of 110,000. After the medal presentation, the two new friends celebrated by walking around the stadium arm-in-arm.
While Owens won a record four gold medals, the inspiring moment helped make Long one of the most memorable and courageous figures in Olympic history.
“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 twenty-four karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”
Long’s historic silver medal is coming to auction, headlining a special auction of Long family heirlooms. The “Beacon of Hope: The Luz Long Collection” opened Wednesday and runs through Oct. 15 at SP Auctions.
After the Berlin games, Long was called to duty during World War II and was critically injured during combat in Italy in July 1943. He died at age 30. After his wife and family spent seven years searching for his remains, his grave was found in the German honorary section of the American military cemetery at Gela, Caltanissetta Province.
As SCP points out in its description of the Long collection, Long’s brave display of friendship toward Owens in 1936 served as a “beacon of hope” against Hitler’s Third Reich and personified the Olympic ideals of sportsmanship and humanity.
SCP auctioned Owens’ 1936 gold medal for $1.466 million in 2013 and estimates it would be worth as much as $5 million on today’s market. It expects Long’s historic silver medal to sell for $500,000 to $1 million.