Cierpinski in 1976
Montreal 1976 gold medal

Montreal won unexpectedly the vote that decided the organiser for the 1976 Olympics. The favourites had been Moscow and Los Angeles, that would also host the Games in the next two occasions (Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984).

The construction plans for the venues in Montreal were very expensive. Additionally, they skyrocketed, due to labour strikes, overtime work and a downturn in world economy. Only the Olympic stadium cost more than the whole Munich Olympic Games four years earlier.

But another big blow came only 48 hours before the opening ceremony. 24 African and Caribbean countries abandoned the competition, protesting for a New Zealand´s team that had competed in South Africa, still under a pro-apartheid regime. This boycott also affected the marathon, as 7 African nations had already sent participants.

Among the great figures of the Olympics we could highlight Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who at 14 won 3 gold medals, scoring for the first time a perfect 10. In athletics, Finnish Lasse Viren got a “double-double” by revalidating his titles in the 5000 and 10000 metres.

The marathon scene had been interesting since Munich Olympic marathon. Some of the runners who had a role in 1972 would also stand out in Montreal.

Frank Shorter was one of the favourites. Besides his gold medal in Munich had won four consecutive marathons in Fukuoka. His comrade Bill Rodgers was also in the cards, after winning the 1975 Boston Marathon, as was Canadian Jerome Drayton, winner of the Fukuoka marathon the same year. The silver medallist from Munich, Karel Lismont from Belgium was also competing. A last-minute entry was new to the marathon: Viren trying to get a third gold medal in the same Olympics, as Emil Zátopek had done in Stockholm 1952.

The marathon course for Montreal was a square encircling the city to avoid the numerous hills, starting and finishing in the Olympic Stadium. It was the first time that a counter mounted on a bicycle was used to measure the distance. This inexpensive method, developed by Alan Jones, offered a 0.1% precision (Clain Jones counter).

Race was scheduled for July 31st at 15.30. 67 athletes were present, less than expected because of the aforementioned boycott from some African nations. The temperature was 25°C, although the drizzle present soften the heat feeling.

Waldemar Cierpinski was born in Neugattersleben, in the German Democratic Republic. He was steeplechase runner until 1974, when he made his marathon debut in the Kosice marathon finishing third. He came back one year later to finish 7th, improving his time by 3 minutes. In 1976 and only two months before the Games he did well in Wittenberg marathon with 2.12.21.

After the race start, runners made three laps on the stadium track before departing. At the 10k (30.48) Bill Rodgers was at the front accompanied by Swedish Goran Bengtsson and Portuguese Anacleto Pinto. They were only 1 second ahead of a big pack with most of the favourites.

By the 15k Shorter took the lead and decided to test the group. He started changing the pace, trying to thin the group. It was a strategy that had worked well for him in Munich 1972. By the 20k (1.01.24) the front pack was reduced to 8. Still too many, and including Cierpinski, Viren, Lismont and other great runners.

As the race continued some runners started falling behind. By the 30k (1.32.08) only Cierpinski had been able to keep Shorter´s pace. 15 seconds behind were Drayton and India´s runner Shivnath Singh. Viren was 13s back, followed by Lismont another 8s behind.

Shortly afterwards, a powerful attack from Cierpinski opened a gap with Shorter. At 40k (2.03.42) his lead was 32s. Following in third was runner from United States Don Kardong, with Lismont in fourth.

Cierpinski entered the stadium, where he must run an additional lap on the track, indicated in the lap counter. As he approached the finish line, the lap counter remained in “1”, to indicate Shorter, coming second, that he still had a lap to run. No speaking English or French, he couldn´t understand the race officials. Doubtful about having to give an extra lap, Cierpinski continued running, being greeted in the finish line by Shorter himself after running an extra 400 metres.

Cierpinki´s time was 2.09.55, with Shorter entering in 2.10.45. Shorter was now silver medallist, after winning the gold four years earlier. The third place was taken by Lismont (2.11.12), who only entering the stadium beat Kardong for 3s and added a bronze medal to his Olympic tally after his silver in Munich 1972. Lasse Viren performance was also remarkable, finishing 5th in his marathon debut, in such a top-class field, with many of the top marathon runners in the world.

Most of these runners would compete against each other later. Moscow 1980 was to be the next Olympic date. What happened in its marathon will be the subject of our next entry.

PS: Only 12 weeks after the Olympic marathon, race director Fred Lebow decided that the New York Marathon, that until then had been run doing loops in Central Park, traversed all five boroughs in city. This decision changed marathon history. New York marathon became an international race with the highest standards and contributed decisively to the “marathon boom” of the 70s. In 1976 the showdown between Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers was won by the latest in 2.10.09, more than 3 minutes ahead of Shorter.



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

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