Monday, July 7, 2008

Living in the Same Box


David Wallechinsky in The Complete Book Of The Olympics (Penguin Books, 1984) gives us a story that is worth retelling.

It is 1936. American Jesse Owens seems sure to win the long-jump competition in the Olympic games. The previous year he had jumped 26 feet, 8 1/4 inches – a record that will stand for 25 years.

As he walks to the long-jump pit, however, Owens sees a tall, blue-eyed, blond German taking practice jumps in the 26-foot range. Owens feels nervous. He is acutely aware of the Nazis’ desire to prove "Aryan superiority." And as a black son of a sharecropper, he knows what it is like to be made to feel inferior.

On his first jump, Owens inadvertently leaps from several inches beyond the takeoff board. Rattled, he fouls on his second attempt, too. One more foul and he will be eliminated.

At this point, the tall German introduces himself as Luz Long. "You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed!" he says to Owens, referring to his upcoming two jumps.

For the next few moments, the African American and the white Nazi chat together. Then Long makes a suggestion. Since the qualifying distance is 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 does and qualifies easily.

In the finals, Owens sets an Olympic record and earns the second of four gold medals. But who is the first person to congratulate him? Luz Long – in full view of Adolf Hitler.

Owens never again sees Long, who is later killed in World War II. "You could melt down all the medals and cups I have," Owens later writes, "and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long."

Luz Long made his mark in world history and taught the rest of us a valuable lesson.

Someone else put it like this: "We can learn a lot from crayons. Some are sharp... some are pretty... some are dull... some have weird names... and all are different colors.... But they all have to learn to live in the same box."

-- Steve Goodier

Image: freeimages.com/Trisha Shears

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