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The men who witnessed sporting history

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Tom Fordyce | 22:27 UK time, Friday, 21 August 2009

Sitting in Berlin's Olympiastadion, its stone columns and surrounding parade grounds almost exactly as they were in 1936, it's impossible not to let the mind drift back 73 years to the Olympics of Jesse Owens, Luz Long and Adolf Hitler.

We've all seen the black-and-white clips of Owens winning his famous four golds, watched Leni Riefenstahl's infamous footage and seen the stills of the Nazi salutes on the Olympic medal rostrum. But what was it like to be there?

There are very few people left alive today who can tell us, but Rudi Thiel and Werner Textor are among their number.

Long and Owens

Rudi was just eight in 1936, a sport-obsessed local boy who was taken to the Olympics as a surprise treat by his father.

"I remember the evening of the opening ceremony," he told me this week, on the concourse at the stadium where he had stood so many years before. "We lived a kilometres south of the city, and the city was lit up like a big fireball - there were so many fireworks. I was the oldest of three children, and the fireworks were like war! Everyone was afraid, and we all hid in my bed. That was my first impression."

Werner, now 89 years old and confined to a wheelchair, was a 16-year-old schoolboy when the Games began.

"My job was to be a messenger," he recalled when I visited him in a nursing home in the Schonefeld district of the city. "In those days there were no mobile phones, so the organisers used students from the local schools who were interested in sport to help them out. When there was something that someone needed to know, I was sent to carry the news. We stayed in youth hostels around the stadium.

"The volunteers were selected according to what your sporting background was, and I liked handball, so I worked on that."

Memories of Owens have been everywhere this week. Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay have both paid tribute to their sprinting forefather. The American team have the initials JO on the breast of their team vests, and Owens' grand-daughter Marlene Dortch will present the long jump medals on Saturday evening.

"I remember seeing Jesse, " said Rudi. "We sat by the start of the 200 metres. I remember the roaring of the crowd, and everyone standing up and always cheering."

Rudi Thiel at Berlin's Olympiastadion, August 2009

Werner got even closer. "I was there when Jesse Owens did the 100m, because there were no handball matches going on at the time, so I had the chance to be in the stadium. The things that Jesse Owens could do when he was running! At that time none of us had ever experienced those things before. I remember being so impressed."

How did the crowd react to Owens? The Berlin Olympics were designed by the Nazi government to showcase the superiority of the white Aryan race over the rest of the world. Owens' record-breaking victories in the two sprints, long jump and sprint relay were a resounding refutation of those ideals - was he treated as a villain as a result?

"For the people in the Olympiastadion, they did not care about politics - it was about sport," said Werner. "Everyone was cheering for him because of what he was able to do. It wasn't like today, when lots of people have gone fast; the crowd really appreciated what he could do.

"There was no antipathy at all for black people or Jewish people - there was no hatred from the German people. Jesse Owens was the star for the crowd, there's no two ways about it. They loved him."

"I have two very good memories of the atmosphere," agreed Rudi. "I remember how friendly it all was. It was great for a young boy. The Nazis and all that stuff - that wasn't in our minds."

Perhaps the most famous moment in the Games came during the long jump qualification. Owens was up against Carl 'Luz' Long, the German favourite. After two rounds, while Long had set a new Olympic record, Owens had been called for two fouls and looked certain to crash out.

"He missed it twice," recalled Werner. "He just went over the board, and it looked like he must go out. Then I saw Luz Long come over and talk to Owens. Later on I understood what those conversations were about. Luz told Owens some tips - that he was taking off from too close, and that he should move back a little. I remember thinking that they were competitors and rivals but they discussing how to do it better, they were helping each other."

Owens took Long's advice. With his third and final jump, he snatched a place in the final, where he out-jumped Long by 19 centimetres to snatch the gold and set another Olympic record. Long, despite being watched by Hitler himself, was the first to congratulate Owens and walked arm-in-arm to the changing-rooms with him.

Owens told reporters at the time: "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 carat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment."

Werner remembers it clearly. "I was aware of the special nature of what I had seen. The moments between Owens and Luz were the most memorable thing I have ever seen in sport. Second? That is when Germany won the handball gold medal in 1936."

Werner Textor, Berlin, August 2009

Owens and Long never met again, but they remained firm friends and kept in touch via letter until the outbreak of war. While Owens, snubbed by the authorities back in the US, fell into poverty, Long was conscripted into the German army. Wounded during the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, he died three days later in a British military hospital.

Owens too is long gone, killed by lung cancer 29 years ago, but the two men's families have kept the transatlantic bond strong. When Owen's grand-daughter presents the medals on Saturday, she will be joined by Long's grandson Kai. The symbolism of the moment will be lost on nobody.

For Werner and Rudi, eyewitnesses to sporting and cultural history, the memories remain both pin-sharp and poignant.

"I would have loved to get an autograph," sighed Werner, "but things were very strict in Germany at that time. You had to stay where you were positioned, and you weren't allowed to move - so I couldn't ask for his signature or shake his hand. But I would have liked to."

Rudi, inspired by what he saw, went on to work within athletics in West Germany and then become a meet promoter. He counts Carl Lewis as a personal friend, and was in the stadium on Sunday night to watch Usain Bolt creat legend of his own.

"Jesse Owens is so important to my heart and to my work," he told me. "In 1985 I got in contact with the Jesse Owens Foundation, and I met Ruth Owens, Jesse's wife. She came to the athletics meeting here, and we were friends from the first moment until she passed away two years ago.

"My wish is that we make the Olympiastadion in Berlin the Jesse Owens Arena. Everyone in the world associates Berlin with Jesse Owens, so this would make sense.

"For me, sport is such an important thing to bring the world together. There are so many crazy things happening in the world, but in sport the world comes together. Muslims, Christians, Jews - they take the same races, they wish each other the best for competition. Only in sport."

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I agree. end of

  • Comment number 2.

    This was an interesting article, thanks BBC

  • Comment number 3.

    Fantastic article yet again Mr Fordyce. Nice bit of light and shade.

  • Comment number 4.

    What a great blog! Sport breaches boundaries like nothing else

  • Comment number 5.

    Very moving article.

  • Comment number 6.

    Sport proves that we are all inherently evil, and only on a level playing field can the world unite.

  • Comment number 7.

    Great article.

  • Comment number 8.

    Again I read an off-cricket blog and again I found it compelling reading.

  • Comment number 9.

    Couldn't agree more, sport has a unique way of being above politics. Take rugby for example, a united Irleand; truly wonderful.

  • Comment number 10.

    Great article, and probably an oft forgotten part of that era. I for one didn't know that had happened, and I'll now keep that story in mind.

  • Comment number 11.

    Excellent reading. It appears that Sport really does unite, if people let it.

  • Comment number 12.

    "The Berlin Olympics were designed by the Nazi government to showcase the superiority of the white Aryan race over the rest of the world."
    -----
    Not really Tom, unless you mean culturally. Yes, I dare say they were as conceited as chocolate chips in cookies in that regard. But athletically people of African descent were regarded as having superior physiques. The attempt to show that non-whites were inferior happened at the St. Louis Olympics and World's Fair in 1904, with results of, naturally, no scientific value. Article here: http://www.slate.com/id/2197635/

  • Comment number 13.

    Excellent piece Forders, you are fast becoming one of my favourite journos.

    Is the Worlds inspiring you for the decathlon or hindering your training, and how is the hammy holding up?

    Hitcho

  • Comment number 14.

    Nice blog. More than makes up for your ham-fisted coverage of Wimbledon.

  • Comment number 15.

  • Comment number 16.

    Great piece.

  • Comment number 17.

    A moving account of individuals setting a good example for the rest of us.

    Unfortunately, it is not enough, as is recorded in the later history of the 20th century.

    Athletes still compete under under their national flags, national anthems are played at medal ceremonies, the media likes to count the national medal-tally, and politicians won't miss an opportunity to be associated with sporting heroes.

    Another party at 10 Downing Street if England reclaim the Ashes?
    Arise, Sir Freddy?

  • Comment number 18.

    Rudi was just eight in 1936

    ______________________________________

    Doesn't add up

  • Comment number 19.

    Great article. London 2012 has already become bogged down in cost and medal tally discussion. I feel sure though that such wonderful memories as those of Rudi and Werner will also be born out of London.

  • Comment number 20.

    Thats what sport is all about and what it should be.
    Maybe we should play more sport in the Middle East and forget about the war.
    The cold war should have been wintersports-nice to dream

  • Comment number 21.

    As a younger German that is born after the war I think it´s unfair to view the Federal Republic of Germany through the pair of glasses of that time. The more or less comparison of the Federal Republic of Germany with the so-called "Third Reich" is wrong.
    The responsibility of the criminal Nazi dictatorship lies firstly at the generation of old Germans that supported it with a majority.
    I do have nothing in common with that.

  • Comment number 22.

    Glad you enjoyed the tale - both Rudi and Werner are lovely old boys. They're both intending to watch the long jump in the Olympiastadion this afternoon, and can't wait to watch Jesse Owens' grand-daughter hand over the medals. Will see if I can put in some video footage of them later on.

  • Comment number 23.

    A fantastic story - especially that the crowd were so ignorant of the regime's intentions and delighted at Owens' performances; what a pity that sense of anti-racism did not bring down the Nazi government!

    Still, it proves the unifying power of sport, one that is hard to underestimate.

  • Comment number 24.

    No one is born hating people who belong to to a race different from his or her own. The adults, especially the white adults are the ones who promote hatred between races. When my daughter, who is black, was six years old, she kept me waiting in the car whenever I wanted to take her home from a childcare centre. She didn't want to come away quickly because she was often saying, "bye-bye" again and again, to her white peers. I just yelled at her, "enough. Come into the car, please!"

  • Comment number 25.

    If you read about Jessie Owens not how the media have added to it and changed it.
    Hitler would only shake the hands of German competitors so was told shake all hands or shake no hands so Hitler shoke no hands.
    Jessie Owens was more upset with FDR tgh American President who never contacted him after he returned.
    Owens turned to professional running but could not make any money so ended up racing horses.
    Owens sais the horses he raced were knackered plus when the gun went off it startled the horses so he had the advantage.

  • Comment number 26.

    Good piece that does not stretch the truth unlike a piece on the TV coverage. Saddest part of all is that Owens was snubbed by his own president and not in his own mind by the evil dictator (claimed they exchanged waves). Ike eventually recognised him 20 years later.

    Sad to say Owens had more rights in Germany at the time than his home land - could stay in any hotel he liked. Indeed 32 years later Americans were still making a protest at their conditions and rights at an Olympics (ironically shouted down by Owens).

    The head of the 1936 US Olympic Committee Avery Brundage was probably a committed Nazi. Owens and Metcalfe only got their places in the relay at the last minute exclusion of Jewish Athletes. Although as they were 1 and 2 in the world it's bizarre they were not originally selected. Brundage who also opposed women in sport was head of the IOC for 20 years from 1952. Brundage threw the greats Smith and Carlos out of the games in 1968.

    It's funny that when rehashing Olympic history we tend to get a potted soap opera easy view with only enduring good and ancient evil embodied in personal confrontations that often did not happen.

    Let's be honest racists never down play the 'athleticism' of those they consider inferior. They still do not. How far different Hitler's view was from FDR, Brundage, Trueman, US public and others is problematic.

  • Comment number 27.

    Owens told reporters at the time: "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 carat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment."


    Wow! This actually moved me to tears, Luz Long what a guy!

  • Comment number 28.

    @JobyJak wrote:

    "Sport proves that we are all inherently evil, and only on a level playing field can the world unite"

    Speak for yourself there. Don't presume to speak for anyone else.

    Otherwise once again a very nice, sensitive and well balanced piece by Mr Fordyce - a true gem of a sports journalist amongst so much mediocrity at the BBC.

  • Comment number 29.

    Great blog, when I read about the grand-children giving out the medals on saturday I cried. I love that sport can do this for us. Nothing divides us like religion and nothing unites us like sport.

  • Comment number 30.

    Whilst i dont disagree with the article the bbcs coverage of a wonderful athletics event has been satured with this. Please does every program have to go on about the same thing. Typical example of the bbc milking a story for all its worth.
    I wonder if when the olympics are held in this country will the worlds media go on about great fire of London or the plague or the british empire and its atrocities. Please give us a break and i am not being insensitive but at what point are people allowed to move on. I like the bbc mixing up the coverage but they have overdone this Hitler thing. Please seperate sport from the politics.

  • Comment number 31.

    Jesse Owens was a very brave man,he had more racist problems in his own country USA.Put into perspective for the time.

  • Comment number 32.

    Nice update for you - the organisers have managed to find a ticket for Werner Textor for Saturday night's action in the Olympiastadion. I've just been to see him, parked up in his wheelchair in the disabled section, and it was quite fantastic - he pointed out where he'd been standing when Owens and Long went in the long jump, 73 years ago. Having witnessed Jesse Owens in action, tonight he'll see Usain Bolt run too.

    He's a very happy 89-year-old. Emotional scenes...

  • Comment number 33.

    "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 carat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment."

    What a fantastic quote. Excellent blog Tom. I didn't realise how historic Jessie Owens' victories were. This site has stepped with the quality of the blogs. I was critical in the past, but I take it all back. There is a lot of diversity and some extremely interesting reads.

  • Comment number 34.

    Tom this has just given me the motivation to read ur blogs more, just so i can get a feel of the history of athletics..... race, politics etc exempted! I am from kenya where we have good knowledge of our athletes however we lack knowldege of the sport. Bravo to you! can you do a blog on kenyan atheletes? Too much to ask may be... but wd love a kipchoge keino blog of his mexico debut 1960! far fetched but hope you indulge me.

  • Comment number 35.

    Great blog. I did not know about this wonderful act of sportsmanship by
    Long or his friendship with 'JO'.
    Paid a visit to this Stadium about ten years ago and found the place
    really spooky (maybe because there was nobody else in the place!) but I really did get a sense of what the atmosphere must have been like all
    those years ago.

  • Comment number 36.

    I am glad that I am not the only one at this blog who thinks that this kind of coverage is offending the Federal Republic of Germany as the host of the 2009 World Athletics Championships.

  • Comment number 37.

    Utterly brilliant!!! Thanks!

  • Comment number 38.

    What people seem to forget or ignore is that Jesse Owens was a second class citizen in the USA in just as much as the jews were in nazi germany. Owens couldn't eat in white restaurants, had to use coloured only bathrooms etc, so when all these commentators harp on about Hitler etc Yes Owens did shatter Hitlers dream. However what's the point if you are not free in your own country and yet a nation of nazi's take you to their hearts. That says more about the USA racial segregation policy than it did about Hitler.

  • Comment number 39.

    Nice article, very touching and thought-provoking.
    Two minor criticisms: I wouldn't say that "The Berlin Olympics were designed by the Nazi government to showcase the superiority of the white Aryan race over the rest of the world" any more than any other Olympics, from Los Angeles to Beijing, have to a certain extent a similar purpose. Also, I take issue with you calling Leni Riefenstahl's documentary "infamous"; despite its blatant propaganda purpose, it is so technically and artistically brilliant, that it is rightly considered a masterpiece in its genre.

 

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