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Was Jesse Owens' 1936 Long-Jump Story A Myth?

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Was Jesse Owens' 1936 Long-Jump Story A Myth?

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Was Jesse Owens' 1936 Long-Jump Story A Myth?

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The track and field world championships begin tomorrow in Berlin. It's the first time an American team has returned to that city for a major international competition since the infamous 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Team members will wear a patch honoring Jesse Owens, the star of the '36 games. Owens was part of a dramatic duel in the long jump with Germany's Luz Long. Tales about that contest and the friendship between the two men have been passed on over the years. But one part of the story may be more myth than reality, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: Over the past 73 years, generations of Americans have learned, at the very least, a shorthand version of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and it's this: Jesse Owens good, Nazi Germany evil. Owens, who is black, won four gold medals and made a mockery of the Nazi's theory of Arian supremacy. And it's what made the story of Owens and Luz Long so captivating.

(Soundbite of movie, "Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin")

Mr. JESSE OWENS (Track and field athlete): And it is in this stadium that I performed, in the summer of 1936, as a member of the United States Olympic team.

GOLDMAN: In 1964, Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan made the movie, "Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin." In the film, Owens explains to Luz Long's son Kai what happened during the long jump. In the qualifying round, Owens failed on his first two attempts. A third miss, Owens tells Kai, and he wouldn't make it to the finals.

(Soundbite of movie, "Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin")

Mr. OWENS: And your father came to my assistance, and he helped me measure a foot back at the take off board, and then I came down and I hit between these two marks. And therefore I qualified, and that led to the victory in the running broad jump.

GOLDMAN: It's a stereotype-busting story. Luz Long, the image of blond, blue-eyed German supremacy helping his black competitor. It's a story included in recent press releases from track and field governing bodies as part of their promotion of the events in Berlin honoring Long and Owens. And it's a story, according to one Olympic historian, that never happened.

Mr. TOM ECKER (Author, "Olympic Facts and Fables"): I've been saying that for years, since 1965.

GOLDMAN: That was the year Tom Ecker says he asked Jesse Owens point-blank about the story. Ecker, author of "Olympic Facts and Fables," had noticed inconsistencies in how Owens told the tale. Ecker had read Grantland Rice's account of the Olympic long jump. Rice, the preeminent sports journalist at the time, had binoculars trained on Owens during the qualifying and never saw him talk to Long. And so it was that Ecker and a colleague asked Owens in 1965.

Mr. ECKER: And Jesse Owens admitted to us that he had not met Luz Long until after the competition was over.

GOLDMAN: And why hadn't Owens told the real story in his many public speaking appearances?

Mr. ECKER: He once was quoted as saying: Those stories are what people like to hear, so you tell them.

Ms. MARLENE DORTCH: I know what my grandfather has shared throughout the years, so to me, that's the truth of the story.

GOLDMAN: Jesse Owens' granddaughter Marlene Dortch is going to Berlin to join Kai Long for the celebrations. Dortch notes one part of the story on which everyone agrees, including Tom Ecker, is that after Owens beat Long in the finals, the two men embraced in front of Adolf Hitler.

Ms. DORTCH: The hug, the camaraderie, the friendship of those two men at that time in history, that's all the truth I need.

GOLDMAN: Luz Long died in 1943 fighting for Germany in World War II. A final letter he wrote to Jesse Owens reads, in part: Someday, find my son and tell him about how things can be between men on this earth.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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