Today is January 26 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you support your competitor?” Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well requires us to support our competitors. As contrary as that may sound, today’s reflection provides an opportunity to recall one of the most memorable events in Olympic history and one of the greatest examples of friendship between competitors in history. Today’s reflection involves an unlikely friendship, a bond that transcended generations, and an example to athletes all over the world what it means to support your competitor.
Carl (Luz) Long was a German Olympic long-jumper who, by the summer of 1936, held the European record in the long jump and was eager to compete for the first time against Jesse Owens, the American world-record holder. The long jump on August 4 was Long's first event where he set an Olympic record during the preliminary round. In contrast, Owens fouled on his first two jumps and sat on the field, dejected. At that moment Long went over to Owens and told him to try to jump from a spot several inches behind the take-off board. Since Owens routinely made distances far greater than the minimum required to advance, Long surmised that Owens would be able to advance safely to the next round without risking a foul trying to push for a greater distance.
On his third qualifying jump, Owens was calm and jumped with at least four inches to spare and easily qualified for the finals. Owens went on to win the gold while Long won the silver medal. Long was the first to congratulate Owens, posed together for photos and walked arm-in-arm to the dressing room. Owens said, "It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the twenty-four karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”
Having bonded so well at the Games, Owens and Long kept in touch by mail. Below is Long's last letter, written during the Second World War from North Africa where he was stationed with the German Army and later killed in action. It reached Owens a year after it was sent. Years later, as per Long's request, Owens met and became friends with his son, Karl. He also went on to serve as best man at his wedding.
Transcript of Long’s letter to Owens
I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father.
My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is a something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth.
If you do this something for me, this thing that I need the most to know will be done, I do something for you, now. I tell you something I know you want to hear. And it is true. 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. Then I not know how I know. Now I do. I know it is never by chance that we come together. I come to you that hour in 1936 for purpose more than der Berliner Olympiade.
And you, I believe, will read this letter, while it should not be possible to reach you ever, for purpose more even than our friendship. I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I have to tell you, Jesse. 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.
Long was killed in action serving in the German Army during World War II. For his actions in the spirit of sportsmanship, he was posthumously awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal - a special decoration awarded by the International Olympic Committee to those athletes, former athletes who exemplify the spirit of sportsmanship in Olympic events or through exceptional service to the Olympic movement.
As Russian author Peter Kropotkin noted "Competition is the law of the jungle, but cooperation is the law of civilization." Amidst the competitive nature of life, how often do you emphasize cooperation as an act of being civil?