Shorter winning the marathon Munich 1972
Shorter (1974)

Munich was selected to host the 1972 Olympics over bids from Montreal, Madrid and Detroit. It was the second time Germany was chosen as organiser after the Olympics in Berlin in 1936. The world and Germany had changed much. Nevertheless, everything was overshadowed by the terrorist attack in the Olympic village that ended with 11 hostages and 5 terrorists killed, and almost cancelled the whole Olympics.

Among the great figures of the Olympics were Mark Spitz, who won a total of 7 gold medals in swimming, and the Finnish Lasse Viren, who won the 5000 and 10000 metres, a feat he would repeat in Montreal four years later. 

The Olympic marathon was planned for September 10th at 15.00 on a flat and shaded course that ensembled the Olympic mascot Waldi, a German dog breed characterised for its resistance, tenacity and agility. Among the favourites were Ethiopian Mamo Wolde, ready to defend his title from Mexico 1968, and world-record holder and unique representative from Australia Derek Clayton. The total number of runners was 74 from a total of 39 different countries.

Frank Shorter from the United States was coincidentally born in Munich, while his father, an army surgeon, was stationed after WWII. In his collegiate days Shorter was a good runner in short distances, although he failed to qualify in the marathon trials for the 1968 Olympics. It was in 1971 that he did his breakthrough in the marathon, winning the Pan American Games title, followed by the Fukuoka marathon and finally the Olympic trial in Eugene in 1972.

The race started, and everything was relatively quiet, as there was still a big pack of runners in the 5k (15.51). By the 10k (31.15) the British Ron Hill was in the lead with Australian Derek Clayton. Pace quickened, and Shorter found himself in the front.

By the 20k (1.01.30) Shorter had a lead of 29s over Belgian Karel Lismont, only 1s ahead of Wolde, Finland´s Seppo Nikkari, Japanese Akio Usami and US runner Jack Bacheler. Then they entered the English Garden, a forested park with a wide pedestrian pathway, where they should run for 8 kilometres.

Crossing the 30k (1.32.49) Shorter´s stride was still fresh, with nothing threatening his advantage. His closest pursuers were Wolde and the other US runner Kenneth Moore, with Lismont falling behind.

At 40k (2.05.31) it was clear that Shorter would get the Olympic gold medal. He was more than 2 minutes ahead of Lismont, who had recovered and was now in second place. Closely behind were Wolde (5s) and Moore (39s), and further behind Kimihara and early leader Hill, who recovering his pace was fighting for a good result.

Around 17.00 everything was quiet in the Olympic stadium, with public waiting for the marathon leader to enter, run a full lap and claim victory. A big applause received the first runner as he left the marathon tunnel. It wasn´t Frank Shorter, but an imposter! 22 years old German student Norbert Südhaus appeared wearing a running kit and a competitor number. He had waited in a car outside the stadium until the most convenient moment. Unstopped he headed to the finish line, as the leader Shorter, majorly unnoticed, was entering himself into the stadium.

Südhaus, with his joke achieved, disappeared through the tunnel again, and attention focused finally on Shorter, who had continued running towards the finish line. As he got closer, Wolde and Lismont entered the stadium too. Shorter claimed victory in 2.12.19, personal best and only 8s slower than Bikila´s Olympic record (Rome 1960). Lismont was second in 2.14.31 and Wolde third in 2.15.08, the third and fourth fastest Olympic marathon times ever.

The top three contenders had been fantastic marathoners.

Mamo Wolde´s bronze medal after his Olympic victory in Mexico 1968 was the fourth consecutive medal in marathon for Ethiopia. His Olympic days finished in Munich. Being 40 years old he had managed to compete against much younger athletes (Shorter was 24 and Lismont 23). His later life was treated in the previous entry of this series.

Karel Lismont was also an accomplished marathoner. His silver medal in Munich was his first defeat in 4 marathons. He returned to the Olympics another 3 times, in a running career that spanned until the Olympics of Los Angeles in 1984. He will participate also in our next entry focused on Montreal 1976, where he was also one of the top contenders for victory.

As for Frank Shorter, during the following years he continued running marathons, winning all but one before the Montreal Olympics in 1976, where he arrived as one of the favourites.

The story of the Olympic marathon in Montreal in 1976 will be the focus of our next entry.

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“The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.

Olympics logo for Munich 1972
Conmemorative stamp for Frank Shorter´s victory

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