On 13 July 1943, a death occurred in the British field hospital in Acate, in the Sicilian province of Ragusa (Italy), which did not particularly attract the attention of the staff. After all, it was an enemy, a Luftwaffe obergefreiter (lance corporal) who was badly injured in defence of the island during the Allied invasion and whom the doctors could not save because he bled to death from a wound in his thigh. He was buried in the war cemetery at Ponte Olico, near Gela, in the southern part of Sicily, and it was only in 1950 that the Red Cross discovered that he was Luz Long, that famous athlete who had befriended the great Jesse Owens.
Luz was a nickname, since his name was actually Carl Ludwig Long. He was born in Leipzig in 1913 into a family of five children whose father was the pharmacist Carl Hermann Long and mother Johanna Hesse. He also had a distinguished great-great-grandfather, the chemist Justus von Liebig. Carl entered the city’s university to study law, and was still pursuing his career when he began practicing athletics, excelling in the long jump and triple jump (incidentally, his sister Elfriede and brother Sebastian Heinrich were also successful athletes).
In fact, his marks were so brilliant that he was selected to represent his country at the European Athletics Championships in Turin in 1934. Back then, the number of events and competitors was much lower than today, so the event only lasted a couple of days, from 7 to 9 September, with Germany being the big winner with 11 medals, of which seven were gold, two silver and two bronze; one of the latter was won by Long in the long jump with a 7.25m jump. He was then 21 years old, a youth that, together with the good result obtained, augured a promising future in sport, as he showed the following year by winning silver at the World University Games.
And in fact, his consecration came just two years later, when he had already finished his studies and was combining the profession of lawyer in Hamburg with competition through the Leipziger Sport Club. It was when the XI Olympic Games arrived, which were going to take place in Berlin between August 1 and 16 and constituted the great showcase of the Nazi regime to show the world its splendor with the propagandistic work of Goebbels and the staging of Speer. It was not in vain that almost four thousand sportsmen and women from 49 countries took part.
Long was an unexpected part of that propaganda, with his 1.84 meters tall, his blond hair, his blue eyes and his unmistakably Aryan appearance, which made him one of the Germanic figures. And the delirium came when, after a lavish opening that had the later unlucky Hindenburg airship flying over the stadium, the first qualifying events were held and Long broke the European record for jumping (which he would retain until 1956). Then came the episode that would mark his life and also provide one of the great moments in the history of sport.
The election of Berlin as the venue for the Games had been carried out without major problems in 1931 but Hitler’s rise to power two years later changed the panorama and several countries considered not sending their teams, although in the end only Spain was absent, first by refusal but then by the outbreak of the Civil War (neither was the USSR, which did not begin to participate until Helsinki 1952). The US Olympic Committee was one of those who almost boycotted the Games as a sign of rejection to Nazi anti-Semitism, although it finally attended. Fortunately for sports, the great star of athletics at that time was American.
His name was Jesse Owens, a native of Oakville, Alabama, who was the same age as Long and, like him, alternated his studies at Ohio State University with athletics, in which he excelled; so much so that year after year he accumulated titles from the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association, the association that organized the university championships). On 25 May 1935 he even broke three world records and equalled a fourth in just 45 minutes. One of the records he set – and which would last a quarter of a century – was the long jump, with 8.15 metres. So in Berlin, the world and European record holders were going to meet, but with an added morbidity because if Long was a racial archetype for the Nazis, Owens was a subhuman for them: Americans should be ashamed of themselves, letting blacks win gold medals for them, said Hitler.
In fact, Owens started his participation on the first day of the Berlin Games winning the 100m race. However, he also made two nulls in the long jump classification, which, paradoxically, left him on the verge of elimination. This left the way open to gold for Long, which, as we saw, had just broken the European record at the same stage. But the latter did not react as expected and took the Olympic spirit to one of its heights by approaching his rival and advising him, that instead of rushing to the table, he should start the last and definitive jump a little earlier, just as he had done, knowing that the American used to obtain records much greater than the required 7.15 metres; he even put a handkerchief 20 centimetres from the line as an indicator. Owens listened to him and, in fact, managed to surpass them with a comfortable 10 centimeter margin.
The next day the final was held – immortalised by Leni Riefenstahl’s camera in her Fest der Völker (Festival of Nations), the first part of her famous Olympia film – and although Long managed to jump 7.87, Owens smashed that mark with 8.06, breaking the Olympic record and climbing to the top of the podium; the bronze went to Japan’s Naoto Tajima (who would later win in the triple jump, also with a world record). But all this was somewhat overshadowed by what came next. Owens also won the 200 and 4 x 100 races, shattering Nazi expectations, and it was said that Hitler left the stadium to avoid having to shake his hand. This was stated, for example, by Albert Speer.
Perhaps the architect of the regime was only looking to unload responsibility on its leader (Speer received a very mild sentence after the war), since the truth is that the Führer only greeted the two German medalists from the first day and since the Olympic Committee asked him to do so to all or none, he chose the second; Owens himself declared that they exchanged greetings and other witnesses ratified it. In addition, he received written congratulations from the German government, which contrasted with the derogatory treatment he received in his own country, where Roosevelt totally ignored him as he was in the middle of an election campaign and trying to attract the vote of the southern states.
All this was apart from the exquisite behaviour of Long, who was the first to run to effusively congratulate his companion and to accompany him embraced to the changing room, to the amazement of the Nazi authorities. Something that made him become history, even though his sporting career was more than remarkable: it is true that he was tenth in the triple jump but in 1937 he won the gold medal at the World University Games and the following year, at the European Championships in Paris, he won the bronze medal in the long jump, jumping 7.56 metres. Between 1933 and 1937 he had broken five continental records.
That was the end of his time in athletics because in 1939 he earned his doctorate in law with a thesis entitled Die Leitung des Sports durch den Staat, eine entwicklungstechnische Darstellung (The Regulation of Sports by the State). Representation of technical development) and entered the Hamburg Labour Court. It was then that he joined the SA and the Nazi Party, something that can only be understood by the need for it to be able to practice, as it does not seem to fit with what was demonstrated in 1936; especially considering that the friendship he made with Jesse Owens on the stadium and in the Olympic village was maintained over time and they used to write to each other regularly.
Like everyone else, the outbreak of World War II changed his life, in his case fatally. He joined the military in 1941 as a sports instructor in Wismar (in what is now Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania) but in 1943 he was assigned to the 1st Hermann Göring Parachute Panzer Division, an elite unit of the Luftwaffe, with which he defended the San Pietro airfield from the American attack; we have already seen what his tragic end was, although his son tells that he was never taken to a hospital but died in combat, according to the testimony of a comrade called Robert Stadler, the body not being found until seven years later. In 1961, his remains were transferred from Gela to the neighbouring town of Motta Sant’Anastasia, where a cemetery was set up for the fallen Germans in the war.
Owens kept one of the promises he had made in his letter exchange and in the postwar period he contacted his son Kai-Heinrich, who was still a child (born in 1941 and had a brother who died in 1944) but whom he visited later, in 1966, both posing in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium for a documentary and being his wedding godfather. Two years before that meeting, according to some sources the International Olympic Committee had awarded Long, posthumously, the first Pierre de Coubertin Medal, an award that rewards those who stand out for their sportsmanship during the Olympic Games. His son claims in his biography of his father that he never got it. He has also been honoured by naming several sports facilities in Germany after him.
The memory he left was expressed by no one better than Owen himself: All the medals and cups I won could be melted down, and they would be worthless against the twenty-four carat friendship I made with Luz Long at that time.
Sources: Luz Long. Eine sportlerkarriere im Dritten Reich: sein leben in dokumenten und bildern (Kai-Heinrich Long) / Lutz Long (Corrado Rubino)/Jesse Owens. “I Always Loved Running” (Jeff Burlingame)/A Passion for Victory: The Story of the Olympics in Ancient and Early Modern Times (Benson Bobrick)/The nazi olympics (Richard D. Mandell)/SR Olimpic Sports/Wikipedia