Sportsmanship: It’s more than just a word

Miriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the word “sportsmanship” as “conduct (as fairness, respect for one’s opponent, and graciousness in winning or losing) becoming to one participating in a sport.” It’s such a simple definition. In fact so simple, this writer believes that most of us only gave it a cursory first glance. In truth we may read it, but do we believe it? Read it again! In sport there will always be success and failure, triumph and disappointment, winners and losers. We like to think that we behave appropriately when faced with defeat. We all clap politely after losing in a sporting event, we all say “well done” to the triumphant winner (possibly even through clenched teeth), and we all make laudatory comments about our opponents.

However, would we offer technical advice to our opponent knowing they could beat us? Would we offer that advice at a major sporting event in front of thousands of our own partisan spectators? Would we offer that same advice in an event showcasing the perceived supremacy of our own race and its political ideologies? Lutz Long did just that and stepped onto the podium of greatness.

However, to walk in sunlight our first steps must occasionally be taken in darkness. Taking a trip back in time can be an enjoyable exercise; it can also be fraught with danger and may even make us face unpalatable truths. Nineteen thirty six was a heady time in Germany. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power had brought the German people to the peak of nationalistic fervor. Germany was strong again and the future looked bright. People had faith and hope; however, the German people could never envisage that the Third Reich was beginning its inexorable march to madness and destruction. The Olympic games of that year took place in Berlin and they were meant to provide a showcase for Aryan supremacy and the “master race.” The Olympic spirit was to be sorely tested. The XI Olympiad was meant to prove a point to the world and not necessarily in a way we would desire.

Lutz Long was a tall, blue-eyed, blond athlete who fitted perfectly into Hitler’s perceived vision of ideological supremacy. Lutz Long became a German soldier; he was a German soldier who fought in World War 2 and he was the “enemy”. First indications from the above sentences would presuppose that sportsmanship and Lutz Long would not fit easily in the same sentence. How wrong we are. Not only are we wrong, we are wrong in a most emphatic way.. Prior to the war Lutz Long was an athlete of notable ability, he was the reigning European long jump champion and he was a favourite for gold in the Berlin games.

Jesse Owens could not have been more different from Lutz Long. Jesse Owens was the grandson of a slave; he was the son of a sharecropper. Jesse Owens was black. He was also a tremendous athlete and at 22 years of age he was reaching the pinnacle of his power. Being selected for the US Olympic team was a great honour for Owens; he was a proud American. He also came from a part of the country teeming with prejudice and racial injustice. Alabama was not an easy place to grow up in the 1920s and life was tough. In many ways being selected to participate in the Games must have been a daunting prospect for Owens.

The long jump on August 4 1936 was Long’s first meeting with Owens and the German set an Olympic record during the preliminary round. The German crowd was in a frenzy of anticipation. The German Fuhrer was sitting high in the stands and beaming in anticipation. It all seemed to be going wrong for the American. Owens fouled on his first two jumps. He was aware that he needed to make his third and final jump legal in order to advance in the competition. He sat in the outfield looking despondent. According to Jesse Owens, Long went to him and told him to jump from a spot several inches behind the line. Owens was well capable of making the minimum 7.15m required to advance, however, he was grasping for an answer. Long assumed that Owens’s problems were technical and that a slight adjustment in length and stride would allow a jump without risking a foul. Long offered his advice, Owens took it and greatness hammered at the doors of both men. Owens calmed his nerves and made the jump with about 6 inches of clearance. Jesse Owens went on to win the gold medal with a leap of 8.06m. Long took the silver with a distance of 7.87m.

This writer believes that the distances and the statistics are irrelevant. Both men jumped into sporting immortality. Long was the first to congratulate Owens. They shook hands, posed for photographs and walked off the track arm in arm. A friendship developed between Jesse Owens and Lutz Long that transcended political ideologies and racial prejudices. Lutz Long was a living, breathing example that sportsmanship will endure and triumph. Long may have appeared in Hitler’s eyes the perfect image of a “super race.” Long was the very antithesis of all that the Fuhrer believed in. Lutz Long was indeed a superman but not in the way that the German leader could have envisaged.

After the games the two men maintained their friendship. Jesse Owens returned to a United Sates that was not always responsive to African Americans succeeding in any field of endeavor. He retired from a sport with a strictly amateur ethos and started to earn money any way possible. He did this by utilizing his prodigious physical talents. He raced against cars and horses and also enjoyed playing basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters. Owens eventually set up a business in Chicago with an emphasis on marketing and public relations. He was invited to numerous conventions and meetings to speak. After achieving such a close friendship at the games, Owens and Long kept in touch by mail.

Lutz Long finished law school at the University of Leipzig and briefly practiced law in Hamburg. He was called into the German army and served in World War 2. Lutz Long was killed in action on July 13 1943. Long’s last letter to Owens was written in 1942 and reached Owens a year after it was sent. The letter encapsulates everything about the man, his ideals and sportsmanship:

“My heart is telling me that this is 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 the world.
Your brother, Luz.”

Years after the war, and as per the request of Long, Owens traveled to Germany again and met Kai Long. The two became firm friends. Jesse Owens had the distinct honour of serving as best man at the wedding of Lutz Long’s son. The families keep in touch to this day.
The death of Jesse Owens in 1980 was a sad time for athletics in general and his family in particular. However, this writer holds to the belief that his death afforded the great Olympian the opportunity to squeeze the hand of his friend once again.

The 12th IAAF World Athletics Championship was held in Berlin, Germany, from 15-23 August 2009. The games took place in the same Olympic venue as those great moments in 1936. It was appropriate that the medals in the men’s long jump were presented (to thunderous applause in the stadium) by Julia Vanessa Long and Marlene Dorchat, the granddaughters of Lutz Long and Jesse Owens respectively. Long and Owens, two giants of athletics, whose names are enshrined in Olympic folk law would have looked down with great pride.


In 1964 Carl Ludwig “Lu(t)z” Long, 28 years after the Berlin games and 21 years after his death, was posthumously awarded thePierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship. This prestigious medal is given by the International Olympic Committee to athletes who have shown the spirit of sportsmanship in Olympic events and only a dozen or so have been handed out to date. The final words, and surely the most resounding, on the subject will always belong to Jesse Owens “”You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24 carat friendship that I felt for Lutz Long at that moment.”

One Response to Sportsmanship: It’s more than just a word

  1. Everyone feels great when they win, but it can be just as hard to be a good sport when you’ve won a game as when you’ve lost one. Good sportsmanship takes maturity and courage when you work really hard at a sport, it’s not easy to admit you made a bad play or that someone has more skills than you. In competition as in life you may not always win but you can learn something from losing, too.

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