You couldn’t miss him. In the finals of the 800 meter race at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, he was the only one wearing a cap. And he was all the way in the back of the pack.
But Dave Wottle did not remain in the back. The Kenyans were setting the pace. Then the Soviet star, Yevgeniy Arzhanov, took the lead with two hundred meters to go, and Wottle of Bowling Green State University is in fifth at the beginning of his kick. As the American broadcasters shout excitedly in this particularly partisan call, Wottle passes one runner after another until nipping the Soviet at the tape to win gold.
Most athletes would bask in the warmth of victory – either jumping in jubilation, or smiling endlessly with a quiet sense of accomplishment. Instead, Wottle wore an expressionless mask, perhaps one of shock. And when he stepped up to the winner’s podium, he made a mistake in etiquette that ruined this championship moment for him.
As the American national anthem played, Wottle forgot to remove his cap. And as he mentioned in this profile in the book, Tales of Gold, “I suppose what most people will remember about me as an Olympic athlete is that I was the one who wore a golf cap while running and also that I forgot to take it off on the victory stand. That episode just dampened my whole Olympic experience. I was never so embarrassed in my life! It should have been the happiest day but it wasn’t; I was simply too embarrassed to be totally happy.”
It was 1972, four years removed from the black-fisted protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium in Mexico City, a time when the US was stuck in the quagmire of the Vietnam War, and only a few days before Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village, taking the Israeli team hostage, and eventually killing them. When people saw Wottle with his white cap on, and his right hand on his left breast, covering the USA patch, they may have wondered what he was protesting. The Vietnam War perhaps?
Wottle was mortified. He said he had absolutely no ill will in wearing the hat, that he simply forgot to take it off.
As Milton Richman wrote in the State Journal-Register, a local Springfield, Illinois newspaper, “The cap sells for 75 cents. You can get it for 35 cents wholesale. Dave Wottle wears it practically everywhere. He wears it when he runs. He wears it when he trains. He wears it when he’s relaxing around the Olympic Village here. And he wore it when they played the Star Spangled Banner after he was presented with his gold medal for winning the 800-meters event at Olympic Stadium Saturday.”
In this article, Richman related an answer to why Wottle was looking so glum despite his victory. “Because I am very embarrassed about not taking my hat off on the stand. I just forgot. I didn’t realize it was still on my head. The people in America won’t understand. I’m going to apologize to the American people. When? Right now, and again, and again.”
And then, Wottle had to wipe a tear or two away.
Fortunately, people do remember Wottle more for the race and the dramatic finish.