The terrorists arrived before dawn.
Dressed in red training suits and carrying duffel bags, they hopped a fence with the help of several American athletes. Security was lax, and no one bothered to ask questions or stop them. These were the “Friendly Games,” the Germans’ attempt to make people forget the last Olympics held in Berlin before Hitler’s approving glare. Climbing a fence in the early morning after a night of drinking seemed just the thing to do. Now the eight Palestinians, members of the Black September group, moved stealthily towards 31 Connollystrasse, where athletes from Uruguay, Hong Kong, and Israel were housed. It was 4:10 a.m. on September 5, 1972.
At the first apartment, they kicked in the door, waking Yosef Gutfreund, an Israeli wrestling referee. He threw himself against the frame and shouted for his countrymen to escape. Tuvia Sokolovsky, a weightlifting coach, managed to break a window and flee, but the other five coaches and referees were not as lucky. They were captured, tied up, and brought with Gutfreund to an empty second-floor bedroom as hostages.
The terrorists then forced wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg to lead them to the rest of his teammates. Weinberg calculated that the wrestlers and weightlifters would stand a better chance of overpowering his captors, so he convinced them that apartment two, which housed the Israeli marksmen, fencers, and track and field athletes was occupied by the Uruguayan team. They moved on, instead, to apartment three where one wrestler broke free, but his remaining teammates were seized. When Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano tried to escape, they were shot and killed.
Weinberg’s body fell to the pavement, where a security guard found him and alerted German authorities. Thus began a 21-hour ordeal that ended when West German police botched a rescue operation at the airport after the terrorists arrived there by helicopter, expecting to be flown to Cairo to continue negotiations. In the ensuing firefight, the terrorists killed the remaining hostages. When it was over, 11 athletes, five terrorists, and one policeman were dead.
The American distance runner Frank Shorter watched the terror unfold from his balcony directly across the way from the Israeli compound. He had gone to sleep that night with the reassuring word the athletes were safe. In the morning, he awoke to the grim truth. Up until that time, the Munich Olympics had been a huge success.
But now as Shorter and his teammates Kenny Moore and Jack Bacheler wondered what would happen to their event—the marathon—the politicians debated whether to let the Olympics continue. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir called for the games’ cancellation, as did influential New York Times sports columnist Red Smith. At the opposite extreme, Arab nations boycotted the memorial ceremony for the slain athletes. Letting the games continue seemed disrespectful and futile. How could running give meaning to murder? And yet not to run seemed equally meaningless. Nothing would bring back the dead.
Shorter did his best to stay prepared for the marathon. He had already run the 10,000 meters (finishing fifth), and was tired and tight from the race. Trying to stay loose, he jogged around the confines of the village with Moore and Bacheler. He was not a politician, and he could not rewrite history. All he could do was run.
* * *
Frank Shorter was a doctor’s son from New England, a headstrong boy who had his own ideas about what he wanted to do. He had been a skier, but turned to running when he read that the French ski team were beating the Austrians because they ran in the off-season. He convinced his gym teacher to let him jog by himself around the field while the other kids played football. Soon he was running to school as well, two miles in low-cut Keds, a book tucked beneath his arm.
It was at the private Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Massachusetts, that he ran his first “Pie Race,” an annual 4.55-mile road race where men who finished under 33 minutes, and women who finished under forty, got an apple pie. In a field of runners mostly older and better trained, he finished seventh, picking off people in the second half of the race and discovering that he had speed in addition to endurance. In the fall of 1964—his final year at Mount Hermon—he was undefeated in cross-country, and broke every record on the courses he ran, winning the New England Championships as well as the Pie Race. He quit the ski team and in the Spring track season set a school record in the two-mile run while continuing his unbeaten streak.
He went on to Yale, where he focused on his pre-med studies and his grades. He didn’t want to commit to something when he couldn’t see a clear path to success. Like his father, he was a toiler and a Puritan who frowned on frivolity. But from his mother he inherited a romantic side. It was a love of the unknown and untried that led him to attempt his first marathon during the summer between his junior and senior year of college. The race just happened to be the U.S. Olympic trials in Alamosa, Colorado, and drew the best runners in the country. Not used to the distance, the altitude (6800 feet), or the heat, and with borrowed shoes that were a half size too small, he dropped out at fifteen miles. But the race showed him what it took to run with the best.
He returned to Yale torn between his romantic and pragmatic halves. To help resolve the conflict, he sought the advice of his coach, Bob Giegengack. Shorter wanted to know how good he could be. Giegengack, who had coached the 1964 Olympic team and was one of the top track coaches in the country, responded, “If you train hard and make a commitment, you could probably make the Olympic team.”
It was what Shorter needed to hear. During Spring break, he started running double workouts, and increased his distance to 80 miles a week. With graduation upon him, he set his sights at the national collegiate outdoor championships in Knoxville, Tennessee. In the six-mile (the equivalent of 10,000 meters), he won by 32 seconds, and he finished second in the three-mile by only one second. With those two races, Shorter announced himself as one of the most promising distance runners in the United States.
But he still had to eat. Being a professional distance runner was no career for a Yalie; in 1968, in fact, it wasn’t a career path for anyone. There were no shoe contracts, no prize money for winning races, and no corporate sponsors to fund training, travel, or housing. Instead, succumbing to his practical half, Shorter went to New Mexico, where his parents had relocated, and enrolled in medical school at the state university in Albuquerque.
By day he studied and attended classes; at night and before dawn he ran. This lasted six weeks. He dropped out when the administration would not let him modify his academic schedule so he could run. His decision was a triumph of passion over reason, yet it was also quite rational. He was a good runner, maybe a great one. He hadn’t even competed at what he believed was his best distance: the marathon. To give up running now without seeing how far he could take his talent would, in his mind, be irrational. Medical school could wait; but his best years as a runner would not.
So Shorter moved in with his parents in Taos and helped them finish construction on their house. When he wasn’t working, he ran through the back roads and dirt paths of the impoverished town. A skinny white guy, no taller than five foot nine, with unruly brown hair, was an easy target, and Shorter drew the interest of a group of pachucos, small-town thugs who chased him through the streets. After that, when he went running, his father followed in his pickup, a .38 by his side. Once, when the pachucos approached, his father fired several shots above their heads to scare them away. They never bothered Shorter again.
He ran aimlessly, 12 to 15 miles a day, wherever his legs took him. But after seven months on his own, he realized he wasn’t going to get any faster by running alone. He reached out to Jack Bacheler, who had beaten him in the two-mile at the Florida relays. Bacheler was living in Gainesville where he was pursuing a graduate degree in entomology while continuing his running. Shorter invited himself down, and soon the two young men were training with a small group of runners in the Florida Track Club. They were joined by future running guru Jeff Galloway, John Parker, who would go on to write the best-selling novel, Once a Runner, and Marty Liquori, the top-ranked1500-meter runner in the world. Although Gainesville is not an ideal place to run, it soon became a mecca for middle-distance and long-distance running, a hub of the running boom along with two other weather-challenged cities: Boston, Massachusetts, and Eugene, Oregon.
In June, 1970, Shorter won both the three-mile and six-mile at the AAU Championships. As a result, he was invited to compete against the Russians in Leningrad at the annual U.S.-Soviet dual meet. He won the 10,000 meters, and his upset victory earned him a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a rare honor for a distance runner. The second place finisher was University of Oregon graduate Kenny Moore. Moore and Shorter would become close friends, and it was Moore who convinced to move up to the marathon. Later, Moore would claim (in jest) that the only reason he suggested Shorter run the marathon was so that he, Moore, could beat him.
A year later, Moore did beat Shorter at the marathon in the AAU championships in Eugene, Oregon. It would be the last time. In August, at the Pan-American games, Shorter won both the 10,000 meters and his first marathon. In December, against some of the world’s best, he won the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon in Japan and shaved five minutes off his personal best time.
Suddenly, Frank Shorter was the number one ranked marathoner in the world. Barely known in his own country, he was nevertheless the United States’ best hope for an Olympic medal at an event no American had won for 64 years.
* * *
Now Shorter waited patiently in the Olympic Village, along with teammates Bacheler and Galloway, to hear whether the event for which they had trained so hard would be canceled. It was hard not to feel selfish at a moment like this, and yet no good would come from thinking of themselves. As Kenny Moore put it later, they had been living in a refuge, immune “from a larger, seedier world in which individuals and governments refused to adhere to any humane code.” But that world had intruded, rejecting the artificial boundaries the athletes constructed, and painted everything in the somber tones of death.
As a result of the services for the slain athletes, the marathon was rescheduled from September 9 to September 10, the final day of track and field events. Although British favorite Ron Hill complained about the change and later claimed it ruined his chances at a medal, it worked to Shorter’s advantage, giving him an extra day’s rest after his two 10,000-meter races. The terrorist attacks also increased press coverage of subsequent events, and focused the attention of the world on the marathon. As ABC anchor Jim McKay noted, the beginning of the marathon marked a “change of mood” in the Olympic stadium, as spectators “put sadness aside” for the first time since the murders. Thus, in a cruel bit of irony, the Munich massacre set the stage for a compelling narrative of resurrection, redemption, and victory. The network couldn’t have asked for a better storyline for the American television audience.
The marathon was an odd event, with little traction in the United States at that time. At 26 miles, 385 yards, the length was not even fixed until 1921. In the first seven Olympic marathons, runners covered six different distances ranging from about 24 to 27 miles, with the course changing to accommodate local topography, historical happenstance, and the British royal family (in order to give them better views). The United States had a champion in Johnny Hayes, who won a controversial race in 1908 when Italian runner, Dorando Pietri, took a wrong turn entering the Olympic stadium, collapsed, and was half-carried across the finish line by officials. The U.S. filed a protest, and Pietri was disqualified, giving the gold medal to Hayes.
But since then, the United States had been shut out at all distances above the mile except for victories at the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in 1964. The athletic culture of the country, with its emphasis on football, baseball, and basketball, created sprinters but not distance runners. It was easy enough for a football star to run track in the off-season, but there were few places for the distance runner beyond the lonely confines of the road. The United States had high hopes in these games for Shorter’s friend and teammate, Steve Prefontaine, famous for his aggressive front running, good looks, and charismatic personality. But after taking the lead in the 5,000, Prefontaine had faltered over the final 150 meters and ended up missing a medal by one place.
Now it all came down to Shorter. Although he was ranked number one in the world, the odds-makers favored Hill, who had run 2:10 at Boston, shattering the course record by three minutes, and Australian Derek Clayton, who held the world record of 2:08:33. Neither thought much of Shorter. Clayton believed his leg action was “too high,” and Hill thought he would be worn out from racing the 10,000 meters. In anticipation of a competitive race, ABC had cameras placed all along the course. In addition to McKay, the network hired novelist Erich Segal, of Love Story fame, to provide color commentary. Segal had been Shorter’s classics professor at Yale and was an amateur marathoner, but completely inexperienced as an announcer, as would soon become apparent.
The race began at 3 p.m. The day broke warm and humid, which again favored Shorter, who was accustomed to the heat and humidity of Gainesville. The course followed the outline of the Olympic mascot, a dachshund named Waldi, with runners starting at the back of the dog’s neck then proceeding through mostly flat, shady, residential neighborhoods and parks. In the second half of the race there was a long twisting stretch of gravel road that runners had complained about in the days leading up to the race because of its loose footing. Then the course made its way back into the Olympic stadium for a final lap.
Seventy-four runners from 39 countries had qualified for the marathon. Now they toed the line in front of 60,000 spectators in the Olympic stadium. A race official gave final instructions, then hustled to the side of the track. The starter raised his pistol. The small mob of athletes tensed: heads bowed, knees bent, arms frozen. Then the gun fired. The runners bolted down the straightaway and into the first turn. Although there was no advantage in jumping to the lead, few could resist the adrenaline rush and the lure of instant, albeit short-lived, glory. They completed the turn, moved into the backstretch, and headed through a tunnel beneath the stadium seats that led out onto the roads. Hill and Clayton took an early lead, while the other runners tried to keep them in view. Although there were plenty of miles to make up the difference, too many races were lost by failing to answer a challenge. The one thing any contender could not afford was to let these two get too far out of sight.
They hit 10 kilometers at a fairly brisk 31:15. Shorter was ten seconds behind Hill and Clayton, and beginning to suffer blisters from the new inserts he had placed in his Adidas racing flats earlier in the week. But he ignored the pain and at the first water station reached for a bottle marked with the radiation hazard symbol. In the bottle was Coca-Cola that he and Kenny Moore had allowed to go flat, so as to avoid stomach cramps from the carbonation. The sugar and caffeine gave him a boost, like a low-budget energy drink. He felt comfortable, his muscles relaxed and his breathing controlled.
Clayton was leading, and Shorter trailed in a small group about fifty meters behind. Just before fifteen kilometers, the pace slowed, and Shorter found himself coming up on the leaders. As he described it, he realized if he didn’t deliberately slow down he was going to take the lead, a risky move so early in the race. He decided then and there, however, to let his momentum take him. “I’d committed myself. This was it—the break. I told myself to get as far ahead as I could because if I got far enough ahead, I honestly thought no one would catch me. I’m not sure anyone but me considered my move a break at the time; a 5- or 10-second lead is not unusual in a marathon and certainly not much with 16 or 17 miles to go.” But the warm conditions were to his liking, the split times had been reasonable, and he preferred to be in control. This was the way he had run Fukuoka and the Olympic trials: Take a relatively early lead and push the pace. If anyone wanted to beat him, they would have to run his race. He threw down the gauntlet and dared the field to rise to his challenge.
By 15 kilometers he had five seconds on the field. At 25 kilometers he was ahead by 57 seconds. Now it was other runners who were losing sight of him. There was still a long way to go, but the odds kept improving with every step. In order to beat him—unless he imploded on his own—someone else was going to have to pick up the pace, and soon.
At 30 kilometers, his lead kept growing. Meanwhile Kenny Moore had moved into second and Jack Bacheler was in sixth, only 38 seconds behind Moore. After the 64-year drought, it suddenly looked as if there might be an American flood. Shorter was running smoothly and compactly, his stride controlled, no effort showing on his face. He was practically a case study in efficient biomechanics. There was no wasted motion, no extra kinetics. Despite Clayton’s biased observations, Shorter’s leg lift was perfect, his body leaned forward slightly, his head held steady, and his arms swung in muscular cadence.
The crowds along the race route were three or four deep in places, and they cheered on the American runner, his white singlet with the red USA logo and his bib number “1014” prominently displayed. A press bus belching diesel kept pace, but Shorter seemed untroubled by the fumes. He entered the English Garden with a solid lead. This was where the road turned to gravel and twisted like a mountain switchback for the next four miles. Shorter knew if he reached the Garden with a lead, it would be hard for his competitors to overcome him without seeing him on the twisting paths. Now his strategy paid off. He not only held his lead, but increased it to 90 seconds. Suddenly, with four and a half miles to go, he could sense victory. That sweet anticipation was glorious, the most satisfying feeling he had ever experienced. Even if it was only the dopamine, it felt like ecstasy.
He focused on a singular goal: get to the stadium. The last miles were grueling, but he knew with his lead his competitors would have to run 25 seconds per mile faster to catch him, a nearly impossible task at the end of a marathon. Even if he slowed to a seven-minute pace in the last mile, he would still win. He repeated these facts like a mantra, and the mantra kept his legs churning. The race was now his to lose, and he didn’t intend to lose it.
Up ahead was the stadium: concrete and steel in the dusk. As he approached the tunnel that led beneath it and onto the track, he heard a huge explosion of cheers. He was momentarily confused. What could it be? The high jump? A world record? But then he was inside the tunnel and cocooned in silence. It was the signature moment of the Olympic Games for him, the one he would remember for many years to come. The tunnel symbolizing the end of the marathon, the link between the outside world and the finish line. The cool dark passage leading to victory.
When he finally emerged onto the track he heard . . . silence. That was odd, he thought, but he ignored it and began his sprint to the finish. As he did, the silence turned to catcalls and boos. It appeared the hometown crowd was belittling the American’s victory, but in fact they were protesting the removal of a German student, Norbert Sudhaus, who had jumped into the marathon right before the finish—incredible, considering the terrorist attacks and the additional security precautions taken by the Germans. With his running shorts, singlet, and muscular build, Sudhaus fooled the crowd into thinking a German was about to win the race.
In the announcer’s booth, Erich Segal shouted, “That's not Frank. That's not Frank. It's an imposter. Get that guy off the track! How can this happen at the Olympic Games? It’s bush league. Get rid of that guy. There’s Frank Shorter. That’s Frank. Come on Frank, you won it!” This endearingly unprofessional outburst would capture the public’s imagination almost as much as Shorter’s victory: a burst of raw emotion that gave voice to the competitive spirit of distance running and the passion of its devotees.
As Shorter surged around the final turn, he was spent, and nearly loopy, but still running about five minutes per mile. One hundred meters from the finish line the boos turned to cheers, and he raised his right fist to acknowledge them, the first time during the entire race he’d allowed his concentration to waver. A few more strides, and he was across the line, a slight smile creasing his face. He dropped both arms, then drew them briefly heavenward, before placing them on his head, as if in disbelief at his accomplishment and overwhelmed by emotion.
After 64 years, America had itself a marathon champion. And in that instant, shadowed by death and loss, the running boom was born.
Top image by Jim Cooke/photo via Getty.