Jesse Owens: My Greatest Olympic Prize

In this RD Classic from our archives, American athlete Jesse Owens tells his stunning Olympic story about putting differences aside for the love of the Games.

By Jesse Owens from Reader's Digest Magazine | October 1960

Jesse Owens: My Greatest Olympic Prize Original art from Reader's Digest, October 1960
Walking a few yards from the pit, I kicked disgustedly at the dirt. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to look into the friendly blue eyes of the tall German broad jumper. He had easily qualified for the finals on his first attempt. He offered me a firm handshake.

“Jesse Owens, I’m Luz Long. I don’t think we’ve met.” He spoke English well, though with a German twist to it.

“Glad to meet you,” I said. Then, trying to hide my nervousness, I added, “How are you?”

“I’m fine. The question is: How are you?

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Something must be eating you,” he said—proud the way foreigners are when they’ve mastered a bit of American slang. “You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed.”

“Believe me, I know it,” I told him—and it felt good to say that to someone.

For the next few minutes we talked together. I didn’t tell Long what was “eating” me, but he seemed to understand my anger, and he took pains to reassure me. Although he’d been schooled in the Nazi youth movement, he didn’t believe in the Aryan-supremacy business any more than I did. We laughed over the fact that he really looked the part, though. An inch taller than I, he had a lean, muscular frame, clear blue eyes, blond hair and a strikingly handsome, chiseled face. Finally, seeing that I had calmed down somewhat, he pointed to the take-off board.

“Look,” he said. “Why don’t you draw a line a few inches in back of the board and aim at making your take-off from there? You’ll be sure not to foul, and you certainly ought to jump far enough to qualify. What does it matter if you’re not first in the trials? Tomorrow is what counts.”

Suddenly all the tension seemed to ebb out of my body as the truth of what he said hit me. Confidently, I drew a line a full foot in back of the board and proceeded to jump from there. I qualified with almost a foot to spare.

That night I walked over to Luz Long’s room in the Olympic village to thank him. I knew that if it hadn’t been for him I probably wouldn’t be jumping in the finals the following day. We sat in his quarters and talked for two hours—about track and field, ourselves, the world situation, a dozen other things.

When I finally got up to leave, we both knew that a real friendship had been formed. Luz would go out to the field the next day trying to beat me if he could. But I knew that he wanted me to do my best—even if that meant my winning.

As it turned out, Luz broke his own past record. In doing so, he pushed me on to a peak performance. I remember that at the instant I landed from my final jump—the one which set the Olympic record of 26 feet 5-5/16 inches—he was at my side, congratulating me. Despite the fact that Hitler glared at us from the stands not a hundred yards away, Luz shook my hand hard—and it wasn’t a fake “smile with a broken heart” sort of grip, either.

You can melt down all the gold medals and cups I have, and they couldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. I realized then, too, that Luz was the epitome of what Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, must have had in mind when he said, “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

Below: A rare, historic look at Owens’ return to Berlin in 1951:

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  • Your Comments

    • swetha

      why did jesse owens foul the first two jumpes in the trial ?

    • Momfuruki

      i am a fan of jessie owens esp because my mother says she knew him. i am so glad he won because we are all a part of the human race not  like adolph hitler thought. thank you jessie

    • Buelina

      Dear Jan:
      Thank you !  I agree we could ceartainly learn a lesson from these two great gentlemen. jan thank you for the photos of me and the mayor, we really look like friends , he’s o . k . smiles.Did I understand that Arthur Boke’s stone has been reset ? Jan I had the priviledge of meeting the man with the golden voice last week , he was very humble etc. I am suppose to go and hear him speak sat..God Bless.

    • Jayesh Purohit

      While victors made it to history books, heroes live in the hearts of people for eternity. Here, I don’t need to mention who is hero and who is victor. The hero has undoubtedly proved his supremacy. Long Live Long….

      • io2io3

        The fact Owens for the rest of his life, kept reminding the public about the help he received from Long, and this story of their brief friendship, usurps such shallow ideas such as “supremacy” in these isolated moments in history.

        Both men are THE victors and heroes here, in their ability to overcome who society conditioned, demanded them to be (Owen’s family history; Long’s education), to extend FELLOWSHIP to each other, HELPING each other to reach EACH MAN’s OWN fullest potential.

        Long broke his own record in long jump, despite his Silver medal. Owens won the official meet of an event he initially nearly disqualified for, yet easily set records at home. Long was astute and generous to recognize Owen’s talents and skills, with a missing piece in his strategy. Long gave Owens an invaluable gift of “Humanness”, that Owens was sure to continue spreading (among the many lessons in his own EXTRAORDINARY struggle as an athlete who excelled during segregation) in his many motivational speeches later.

    • Anonymous

      Oh, that all of us could learn this great lesson from these two great men.