The Unlikely Friendship of Jesse Owens and Luz Long

Participating in sports has many benefits, from increasing agility, strength, and fine motor skills, to building self-confidence. One of the best things that come out of sports though, is the relationships built with teammates, fans, and even competitors. In this next subset of my series, New Year; New Types of Friends, I’ll start with an unlikely and uncommon friendship from the world of sports that shows how uncommon rivals with common goals can lead to long-lasting bonds off the field.

Let’s first explore how engaging in sports can bring people together. 

Finding Commonality Over Sports

In The Physiology of Friendship, I explained how engaging in recreational activities with a good friend provides physical and emotional benefits. Good physical health comes from participating in activities such as running, biking, or any other individual sport. There is also an emotional bond that comes from finding something in common as a teammate or fan.

Team sports like football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and soccer also help uncommon friends develop chemistry as teammates. Players on a team often spend hours practicing and playing games against other teams. There are also individual sports such as tennis, golf, downhill skiing, or events in track and field (though some individual sports combined scores into a team score such as the Ryder Cup which pits American golfers against European golfers in both individual rounds and alternating-shot team play). Uncommon friendships during childhood, high school, college, and even professional sports, often turn into lifelong friendships.

There is also bonding that comes from watching a game together. Commonality as a fan of a particular team, player, or sport unites people together. For instance, two unlikely guys may both love football or English football (soccer). Additionally, during your adult years, you may discover some common fandom, among the fathers from your son’s or daughter’s dance class or tee-ball team. You may discover you both went to the same university and enjoy playing golf. You may have shared interests.

In any of these cases, your friendship will begin to flourish once you find you have two things in common. What may look like an uncommon friendship may even share other interests and hobbies outside of sports.

Second commonalities often reveal chemistry. That chemistry makes it easier to find time to spend developing your new friendship.  

Competition Challenges You

Guys love to compete! We work hard and we play hard together. We challenge each other’s skill levels to help each other become better at everything we do. As teammates in practice, we compete for positions and playing time. But there’s an amazing feeling of being accepted by your peers since it improves your self-esteem and confidence.

Occasionally, you may find an instant spark of chemistry with a teammate that comes from competing. In many cases –but not always, teammates generally like each other. Reportedly, former LA Lakers teammates, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were horrible teammates. But they shared the common goal of winning an NBA championship.

That competitive fire can also turn ugly. Competition can bring out an undiscovered side of you that can carry forward into other aspects of adult life. Competitors may like each other off the court, but not during the heat of their match. One example is U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding, who hired a hitman to club Nancy Kerrigan, in order to improve her chances of winning a 1994 Olympic medal.

Competition as a fan even bonds you together to spur one another on to better new levels. Competition can unite two unlikely fans of Chicago baseball teams. For instance, one might cheer for the Cubs and the other for the White Sox (my personal favorite!). Their uncommon fandom of local sports teams leads to a common goal of attending the cross-town classic between their teams.

An Uncommon Friendship in Sports

A great example in sports of an uncommon friendship is that of American Olympian, Jesse Owens, and his German counterpart, Luz Long at the 1936 Olympic Games.

When Jesse Owens arrived to compete in Berlin, he was under immense pressure. At age 22, he had broken world records even before making his first Olympic appearance. The world was eager to see him.

The Olympics were part of Adolf Hitler’s grand Nazi plan to prove his master race superiority over African-Americans. Hitler’s golden boy for those Olympics was Ludwig Long.

About Luz Long

Carl Ludwig ‘Luz’ Long (April 27, 1913 – July 14, 1943) was tall, blond, and blue-eyed – the perfect Aryan attributes according to the Nazi party.  The 21-year-old Long had finished third in the 1934 European Championships and had won the German long jump championship six times. He held the European record in the long jump by 1936 and was eager to compete for the first time against Jesse Owens, the American world record holder.

Years later, Ludwig Long was killed in action while serving in the German Army in North Africa on July 14, 1943.

About Jesse Owens

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) was an American track and field athlete who specialized in sprints and the long jump. He set three world records and tied another, all in less than an hour, at the 1935 Big Ten track meet —a feat that has never been equaled and has been called “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport”.

ESPN ranked Owens as the sixth greatest North American athlete of the 20th century. He is recognized as “perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history”. As a black American, he is credited with single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy at the 1936 Olympics.

Jesse Owens died of lung cancer disease at age 66 in Tucson, Arizona, on March 31, 1980, with his wife and other family members at his bedside. He is buried at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. The grave is inscribed “Jesse Owens 1936 Olympic Champion”.

A True Act of Sportsmanship

Throughout the 1936 Olympics, Jesse Owens was called racial slurs and subjected to other forms of mistreatment, even worse than what he already received back home in America. Despite those adversities, he went on to write history with four Olympic gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay, and long jump– a feat no other Olympian ever achieved. His record stood for 48 years before Carl Lewis broke it at the 1984 Olympics.

While Owens’ feat was unique, he might have lost one of his gold medals had it not been for the advice of an unlikely ally, Ludwig ‘Luz’ Long. His unexpected assistance and subsequent friendship with Owens became a major talking point at the Olympic Games.

Long’s first event against Owens set an Olympic record for the long jump during the preliminary round. In contrast, Owens fouled on his first two jumps. Knowing that he needed a great final jump to advance to the finals in the afternoon, Owens sat on the field, dejected. It was at this crucial juncture that Long walked up to the American.

In what was an unprecedented display of sportsmanship in front of the Berlin crowd, Long suggested Owens change his mark and take off well before the foul line to avoid fouling the last attempt. Heeding this advice, Owens sprinted on his final try to qualify for the final, alongside Long. Owens won the gold medal, setting a new Olympic record, while Long grabbed silver. The German was the first to congratulate Owens and later walked around the stadium, arm-in-arm with Ovens. The duo posed together for pictures. Long’s classy acts of sportsmanship stayed with Owens for the rest of his life.

A “Friendship of the Good”

As I wrote in The Philosophy of Friendship, Aristotle defined three types of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics on how men should best live: 

  • friendship for the sake of a benefit (utility),
  • friendship for mutual pleasure (non-sexual enjoyment),
  • friendship founded on shared values (friendship of the good).

Aristotle felt this last type was the most preferable since it results in living for a better purpose. In my opinion, most friendships for the good are brought together by God. The Holy Spirit gives friendships a common, higher purpose.

The friendship of Jesse Owens and Luz Long remained long after the Games. It became an unlikely and uncommon friendship for the common good. It not only helped bridge a racial divide, but it also helped squelch Hitler’s Aryan theory.

Ownes and Long remained friends after the Olympics and kept in contact as much of the world plunged into war. Seemingly aware of his impending fate, Long wrote a touching letter to Owens before he died in the war:

“My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write.”

“That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer…I know it is never by chance that we come together …I think now that God will make it (our friendship) come about. “

“I think I might believe in God. And I pray to him that, even while it should not be possible for this to reach you ever, these words I write will still be read by you. 

Your brother, Luz

–Excerpted from Luz Long’s last letter to Jesse Owens

I might even suggest that Luz Long found God at the Olympics and discovered his higher purpose.

Small GB logo

GodBuddy Focus

The uncommon friendship in sports of Jesse Owens and Luz Long demonstrated how sports can unite people across gender, race, and nationalities, even in the toughest circumstances. 

As I wrote in my post, Traits of a GB Relationship: Finding Commonality, there is a third commonality that adds the most relational depth and takes a friendship to God Buddy level. It’s a common pursuit of living to God’s standards. My formula looks like this:

  • First Commonality + Second Commonality + Third Commonality (Living according to God’s standards) = God Buddy Relationship

While they may not have realized it at the time, the uncommon friendship of Jesse Owens and Luz Long had this third commonality. The Holy Spirit put their brotherhood together for the purpose of racial healing and making each other better men.

Adding a third commonality of living according to a higher purpose may seem daunting. But it can turn a competitive, uncommon friendship, even if not in sports, into one worthy of God’s gold medal!  

My next post is another example from the world of sports: Max Schmelling and Joe Louis.


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