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Friendship worth remembering
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Forsyth County News

The World Championships of Track and Field get underway this weekend in Berlin's Olympic Stadium.

This marks the first time Berlin has hosted the world since staging the 1936 Olympic Games, an Olympiad that produced some of the most vivid memories in Olympic history. They began as the games of Adolph Hitler, but ended as the games of Jesse Owens and Luz Long.

Last week, the International Association of Athletics Federations, which will be conducting these championships, made a wonderful announcement.

Thanks to a joint effort by the IAAF, USA Track and Field, and the Berlin Organizing Committee, Owens and Long will be remembered and celebrated at the championships.

Marlene Owens Dortch, Owens' granddaughter, and Luz Long's son, Kai, will present the medals for the men's long jump. They will also take part in other ceremonies throughout the nine days of competition.

And if you look closely, you'll see Owens' initials adorning the uniforms of the American athletes.

"These championships provide a rare opportunity to honor the bond of international friendship formed by Mr. Owens and Mr. Long," said IAAF president Lamine Diack. "It is our earnest hope that the power of athletics to unite the world in friendship can be displayed once again in Berlin during these world championships."

Doug Logan, USATF CEO, said, "To see the families of Jesse Owens and Luz Long side by side will provide the capstone to a yearlong celebration for USA Track and Field. Few athletes mean more to our sport's international heritage than Mr. Owens, and it is our honor to assist in bringing the Owens and Long families together again."

Owens went to Berlin as America's finest athlete. The son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, Owens was picking 100 pounds of cotton a day at the age of seven in Oakville, Alabama. His family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, two years later, and Owens soon excelled in track and field.

On an incredible afternoon in 1935, the Ohio State sophomore set three world records and tied another at the Big Ten championships.

He first tied the record in the 100 yard dash (9.4 seconds). Next he long jumped 26 feet, eight and three-quarter inches, a record that would stand for 25 years. Then he ran 20.3 in the 220 yard dash. Finally, he became the first person to break 23 seconds (22.6) in the 220-yard low hurdles.

And get this: he did it all in the space of 45 minutes!

The next year, he won all 42 events he entered leading up to the Olympics.

Once there, he ran right into Hitler's myth of Aryan Supremacy. The Nazis referred to Owens and his team-mates as America's "black auxiliaries" and ridiculed them as "non-human."

"I remember going into Berlin, and everybody was wearing a uniform," John Lysak, an Olympic rower, recalled for Mark Purdy of the Oakland Tribune. "And the flags. The swastikas. We were there in 1936, and in 1939, the Germans were in Poland."

In this atmosphere, in front of over 100,000 people, Owens won the 100 yard dash, edging his black teammate, Ralph Metcalfe. Hitler came down from his box to congratulate the other athletes, but ignored Owens and Metcalfe.

"I ended up on the same ship back to the United States as Owens," Lysak added. "He told me the snub didn't hurt his feelings because, as a black man, that kind of thing had been going on his whole life. He'd gotten used to it."

Owens wasn't used to what happened next. During qualifying rounds for the long jump, Owens fouled on his first two attempts (one of which was his final run-through, but ruled an attempt by the officials). Rattled, he had only one more jump to qualify for the final.

Suddenly, Long approached Owens. Pointing out that Owens was the best jumper in the world, Long suggested that he simply move his starting mark back, sacrificing six inches for a safe jump.

Assured, relieved, and relaxed, Owens made a good jump, and reached the final. There, he held the lead, until Long tied him on his fifth jump. Owens then topped Long on his next jump, clenching the gold medal. Long won the silver.

After the competition, the two competitors embraced, and walked off the field arm-in-arm.

"It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler," Owens wrote later. "You can melt down all the medals and cups I have, and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace."

The two men remained friends, and Long asked Owens to be his son's godfather. But their correspondence ended when Long went off to war. He was killed in St. Pietro in Italy in 1943.

"I don't think you will ever hear from me again, Jesse," Long wrote in his final letter. "I want you to know how much your friendship meant. Could you please keep in touch with my family?"

Specifically, he wanted Owens to find his son. "Tell him, Jesse, what things were like when we were not separated by war. Tell him how things can be between men on this earth."

When not practicing his avocation, Denton Ashway practices his vocation with the law firm of Ashway and Haldi in Cumming.