As mentioned in my last post, I attended the National Explorer Olympics in 1978. During the closing ceremonies, many Olympic dignitaries were in attendance. While waiting for the festivities to start, I ran up front and snapped a photo (left to right) of decorated sprinter Jesse Owens and phenomenal swimmer John Naber (see left). Jesse recited a story that evening about a kind German friend.
The story: in 1936, the Olympics were hosted by Germany. At that time, Adolf Hitler and his Nazis were on the rise. The United States seriously considered boycotting the 1936 games in protest to Germany’s aggression towards its neighboring countries. But in the end, they decided to participate.
Hitler and his Nazi cohorts thought Jews, African-Americans and others were inferior to the white Aryan race Germany was promoting in their hate propaganda. Many German leaders mocked America for allowing African-Americans to participate. One German official even complained that the Americans were letting “non-humans, like Owens and other Negro athletes,” compete.
Hitler’s well-known hatred of Jews and non-white races was the foundation of these Olympics. Jesse Owens had to compete in a stadium thick with “Heil Hitler” straight-arm salutes and swastikas.
Owens had won the gold medal in the 100-meter and on the next day, participated in the long jump. Jesse, who held the world record in the long jump, foot-faulted on his first two qualifying jumps. If he fouled again, he’d be eliminated.
With that one jump remaining, Luz Long, a tall, blue-eyed, blond German long jumper who was his stiffest competition, encouraged Jesse to do his best. Jesse said that he was stunned at this seemingly small but kind act of sportsmanship in the midst of the hatred the German leaders promoted. On his third and final qualifying jump, Jesse advanced to the finals to compete against his new friend, Luz.
In the finals that afternoon, Luz’s fifth jump matched Jesse’s best. But Jesse then jumped further, with a world record jump of 26-5½. Jesse won the gold medal and Luz took silver.
Luz was the very first person to run up and congratulate Jesse after his world record leap. Jesse said that “Luz looked like the model Nazi, but wasn’t.”
Luz Long knew it would not please Hitler, who was sitting prominently in the multitude. But he publicly congratulated and embraced Jesse and walked around the stadium with him, arm-in-arm, before the astonished German crowd.
Jesse recounted his feelings for the friendship Luz had displayed. He said, “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”
Hitler must have gone crazy watching one of his star athletes befriending an individual that he thought was inferior.
Luz Long with Jesse Owens (John Otto Magee)
The sad part of the story is that Jesse and Luz never saw each other again. They did stay in contact and wrote several letters to each other. But Luz was killed in World War II.
As a German soldier fighting in 1942, Luz wrote one last letter to Jesse:
“My heart is telling me that this is perhaps the last letter of my life. If that is so, I beg one thing from you. When the war is over, please go to Germany, find my son and tell him about his father. Tell him about the times when war did not separate us and tell him that things can be different between men in this world. Your brother, Luz.”
In 1951, Jesse Owens kept his promise and found Luz Long’s son in war-torn Germany. He later said that what he valued the most from the 1936 Olympic experience was, by far, his friendship with Luz Long.
When we were born, we didn’t hate anyone. Yet, I sense hate every time I turn on the news, listen to a neighbor gossip or watch an elementary student bully another. Hate is something we learn. That is the bad news.
The good news is if you can learn hate, you can also unlearn hate. The key to unlearning hate is to learn more about other people. Truly strive to be empathetic and walk a mile in their shoes. Understanding their perspective will allow you to deeply entertain the opinions of others without necessarily agreeing with them.
This is the power you need to make a difference.
Every single day, somewhere on this planet, men, women and even children are bullied, terrorized, tortured and even killed because of their religious beliefs, race, sexual orientation, the way they look, or just because they are different. This will go on until we all, like Luz Long, stand up and truly reach out a hand and befriend another.
We have to stop being quiet and defend those that cannot defend themselves.
Let’s follow Luz Long’s example and promise to live our lives showing respect for all people, no matter how different they are. Be a person committed to living with dignity and peace — someone who celebrates diversity and embraces differences among people. Befriend that one person who seems to be a loner — a bit different from you. You may be surprised; a best friend may be found in the most unlikely places.
I can hear Luz and Jesse screaming from the heavens above: Hate should never separate us. Men and women can live with each others’ differences. They just need to see all as members of the human race and be kind, civil and empathetic.
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Art has also served as executive vice president of business development and strategic initiatives for First-Source; CEO and founder of Echopass Corporation (the world’s premier contact center hosting environment, which was acquired by Genesys for about $110 million); CEO of Sento Corporation; and managing director and VP of European business development for Sykes Enterprises.
Art is a widely-published author of methodologies for BPO/contact centers, outsourcing, customer service, and technical support, and has served in leadership positions at Hewlett-Packard, VLSI Research, and RasterOps.