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50 years after winning the Olympic Marathon, Frank Shorter reflects on the games marked by tragedy

Frank Shorter was the first American winner of the Olympic Marathon since 1908. No man from the United States has won it since. (Alex Ashlock)
Frank Shorter was the first American winner of the Olympic Marathon since 1908. No man from the United States has won it since. (Alex Ashlock)

After 11 Israeli athletes died in a terrorist attack, American runner Frank Shorter was sure the 1972 Olympics were over. Nothing’s worth more than human life, he thought: “We’re going home.”

But once the decision was made to continue the games, Shorter never hesitated. He would run in his event, the marathon, because not competing would mean “they win” — the terrorists. So on Sept. 10, 1972, Shorter toed the starting line in Munich, West Germany, where he had been born in 1947 while his father worked there as a military doctor, and he ran for the gold medal. He finished the 26.2-mile race in 2 hours, 12 minutes and 19 seconds, more than 2 minutes ahead of the second-place finisher.

Shorter was the first American winner of the Olympic Marathon since 1908 and no man from the United States has won it since. Joan Benoit won the women’s Olympic marathon in 1984, the first time the event was held for women. She’s the only American winner of the women’s event.

Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic gold medal. (Courtesy of Frank Shorter)

When Benoit ran into the stadium in Los Angeles in 1984 the crowd erupted. When Shorter entered the Olympic Stadium in West Germany 12 years earlier there was confusion. An imposter, a young man, had run onto the track before Shorter and crossed the finish line before he did. Shorter didn’t hear a cheering crowd: He heard whistles, which he interpreted as booing, and he wondered what was going on. He thought maybe that noise was aimed at him because Americans weren’t supposed to win the marathon. Shorter says his relatives watching on TV in the U.S. were more upset than he was, and anyone watching the ABC broadcast heard commentator Erich Segal shout, “That’s not Frank. That’s an imposter, get that guy off the track!” “Love Story” author Segal was a runner and had been one of Shorter’s professors at Yale University. The two got to talk about what happened that night when Segal took Shorter and his family out to dinner.

“I really never felt robbed, I didn’t feel cheated,” Shorter says about the imposter. “I realized I didn’t run for the roar. I didn’t run for that cheer because it has never bothered me.”

Shorter ran for other reasons. The biggest reason at that time in his life, at age 24, was his fellow runners: Athletes he trained and competed with, like Kenny Moore and Jack Bacheler. Both were on that 1972 U.S. Olympic team and ran the marathon with Shorter that September day when Shorter stood taller than anyone else on the podium.

“It was very important to me on the victory stand, thinking about representing the U.S. running community, which at that point had that been undervalued,” Shorter says, “and I knew I was so fortunate because I knew so many of the guys on the distance team who I’d trained with and were my friends. We were all together and we all made it to the Olympics and I was the fortunate one who got a medal.”

Kenny Moore just missed a medal in that 1972 Olympic Marathon. He finished 4th. (Jack Bacheler was 9th, by the way) and after those Olympics Moore wrote wonderful stories about running and runners for Sports Illustrated and other publications. Moore died May 4th, which makes this 50th anniversary of the 1972 Olympic Marathon bittersweet for Frank Shorter. “We were equals,” he told men, “maybe I wasn’t even his equal. Kenny was a wonderful man.”

Frank Shorter at his home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, holds a photo of him running in the 1972 Olympics. He won a gold medal in that marathon which occurred after 11 Israelis were killed at the Olympics. (Alex Ashlock)

On race day, Sept. 10, 1972, Shorter said he got up and he felt pretty good. That feeling carried over into the marathon. Nine miles into the race he did what had planned and trained to do. He picked up the pace. He surged. He looked back. No one followed him. He was alone and basically out of sight for much of the rest of the race because the Munich marathon course had a lot of twists and turns. His lead over the rest of the runners grew and grew. He was never threatened.

Sitting in his home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, 50 years later thinking about that race and his late friend Kenny Moore, Shorter wonders what would have happened if he had told Moore about the breakaway. Perhaps Moore would have joined him in the lead, and maybe he would have won his own medal.

“I kind of wished I had turned to him when we were warming up and said ‘Kenny I’m going early,'” Shorter says. It’s not a regret. It’s a big what if.

Shorter didn’t feel cheated when an imposter finished ahead of him in 1972. But after what happened at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, he did. An unknown runner from East Germany, Waldemar Cierpinski, won the gold medal in the marathon and Shorter won silver — but not the gold he deserves in hindsight. Cierpinski also won the 1980 Olympic Marathon in Moscow [an Olympics the U.S. boycotted after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan] but he was later implicated in East Germany’s state-sponsored doping system, dosing its athletes with performance-enhancing drugs. Shorter would eventually become a leading figure on the anti-doping movement.

Today, Shorter and his wife Michelle live in Falmouth, moving to Massachusetts from Colorado last year. Falmouth just happens to be home to a very famous road race (which the couple ran for the first time in August as residents) and part of the reason it’s famous is Shorter. A local bartender named Tommy Leonard watched him win the Olympic Marathon and thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could get Shorter to run on Cape Cod?

It took a couple of years but it happened. Shorter won his first Falmouth in 1975, repeated as champion the next year, and his duels with Bill Rodgers became the stuff of legend. And it’s partly thanks to that day in Munich, a day that also had a much bigger impact, way beyond Cape Cod. It helped launch a running boom in America, with countless people buying their first pair of running shoes and hitting the roads. Including me.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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