The tide of World War II was turning against Nazi Germany in 1943, and Luz Long had the sense that death was closing in on him on at the Sicilian front.
The former long jumper wanted his family and friends to know one thing if his number came up, he told his son Kai in a final letter. The friendship he had formed with sprinter Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Games was genuine — true and heartfelt.
The story of that bond between Owens, the African-American star who captured four gold medals at the “Nazi Olympics,” and the German he defeated in the long jump is the stuff of Olympic lore. Long gave a tip to Owens how to get into the final, then wound up with the silver medal. He lost the competition but the two athletes forged a friendship.
It was a tale embraced for decades in Germany, where the Ownes-Long story became a postwar symbol of a more tolerant future as the country rebuilt itself into a vibrant democracy.
But, as they do everywhere, memories fade.
“If you ask young people, most of them won’t know the name” of Jesse Owens, said Helmut Digel, a professor of sports sociology and the top official in German athletics.
“It was an educational tool,” he said of the Owens-Long friendship, which has continues among the athletes’ families to this day. (Long was indeed killed in the war while Owens died in 1980).
Berlin even renamed a stately, tree-lined road outside the Olympic Stadium into the Jesse Owens Allee.
Yet now, even where his gold medals made the strongest statement possible against theories of white racial superiority, Owens often is forgotten.
“No, I don’t know her,” said one teenage German, who preferred not to be identified, when asked as he was walking along the Allee. “I play soccer. I don’t like track and field.”
The generation gap also was clear within the Dux family from Fulda in central Germany. When prodded, Ute Dux — the mom — did remember. “I was not born at the time but I heard about his performances,” she said. But the name drew a blank from her 20-year-old daughter, Angelina. The same with her three siblings, even though two are on their local track and field team.
“I don’t know the man,” Angelina said.
To give Owens’ message of excellence and tolerance a new vibrancy, representatives of the Owens family and Kai will hand Saturday’s gold medal to the long jump world champion at the Olympic stadium where their forebears competed for gold.
The U.S. athletes are wearing the initials “J.O.” on their sleeveless track jerseys.
“Normally, we go into competition with three important letters “U.S.A.” Now we go with 5 important letters,” said Doug Logan, the head of U.S.A. Track and Field, who found that even some of his own athletes were no longer aware of Owens’ legacy.
Anyone can travel to Berlin’s Sportmuseum during the world championships where a little exhibit “Eine Sportlegende — A Sports Hero” tells the story in iconic photographs.
At the 1936 Olympic Games, Long played a pivotal role in helping Owens achieve his historic four gold-medal performance.
After Owens had fouled on his first two long jump attempts, he had one left to advance or be eliminated. That’s where Long came in. After setting an Olympic record during qualifying, he gave some tips to Owens on his run-up and his rival obliged by making the finals on his last try.
From there, Owens took gold and Long second place. Despite Long’s disappointment and the political undertones of the result, he and Owens walked from the stadium arm-in-arm.
For Long, it was all about dignity among men. He would later write to his mother: “All nations have their heroes, the Semites and the Aryans, but everyone should get rid of the arrogance of its own race.”
At the time, Owens was warmly welcomed by Germans, and some considered it a protest against the regime.
“The enthusiasm that met him in the stadium, that was no act,” said Gerd Steins, the chairman of the Forum of Sports History. “The government could not control all.”
Olympic historian David Wallechinsky agrees. “You see right here in ’36, despite all that racial propaganda, here’s Jesse, the hero of the games. Clearly there’s part of large segments of German population that didn’t actively buy in to what the Nazis were selling.”
Immediately after the war, his fame remained intact. “Jesse Owens was always an idol,” said Steins. Owens came back to Germany several times and was always welcomed.
Now, the people who actually saw him perform almost all have died, and keeping the memory alive is tough.
“For the generation of 50 and older, he is still a a big name,” Steins said.
For anyone younger in Germany, life and sports has changed.
“They even don’t know Ulrike Meyfarth or Armin Hary,” Steins said of the 1972 Olympic high jump champion and the 1960 sprint champion of the Rome Games.
“It is all soccer now,” he said.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.