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Jesse Owens

Berlin—Jesse Owens seemed sure to win the long jump at the 1936 games. The year before he had jumped 26 feet, 8 1/4 inches—a record that would stand for 25 years. As he walked to the long-jump pit, however, Owens saw a tall, blue eyed, blond German taking practice jumps in the 26-foot range. Owens felt nervous. He was acutely aware of the Nazis’ desire to prove “Aryan superiority,” especially over blacks.

At this point, the tall German introduced himself as Luz Long. “You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed!” he said to Owens, referring to his two jumps.

For the next few moments the black son of a sharecropper and the white model of Nazi manhood chatted. Then Long made a suggestion. Since the qualifying distance was only 23 feet, 5 1/2 inches, why not make a mark several inches before the takeoff board and jump from there, just to play it safe? Owens did and qualified easily.

In the finals Owens set an Olympic record and earned the second of four golds. The first person to congratulate him was Luz Long—in full view of Adolf Hitler.

Owens never again saw Long, who was killed in World War II. “You could melt down all the medals and cups I have,” Owens later wrote, “and they wouldn’t be a platting on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long.”

David Wallechinsky in The Complete Book of the Olympics