Willi Holdorf: Unexpected and Pioneering Decathlon Champion of the 1964 Olympic Games

Willi Holdorf on medal stand
Rein Aun of the Soviet Union (silver) Willi Holdorf of Germany (gold) and Hans-Joachim Walde of Germany (bronze)

To be honest, he looked more like an accountant than a decathlete. He had thinning hair and sloping shoulders, and wasn’t dominant in any of the ten events. And yet, at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Willi Holdorf of Germany broke the US stranglehold on the decathlon to be the first non-American to win the prestigious event since 1928.

According to UPI, when the 24-year old student was asked by the press how it felt to be the “World’s Greatest Athlete”, Holdorf replied “‘Nicht ich, nicht ich’, vigourously shaking his head when the question of how it felt to be regarded the greatest of them all wad put to him. In slow, deliberate English, he conveyed the idea that he did not think of himself as No. 1, but genuinely believed (Bob) Hayes was the all-round best even though the speedy Floridian never even competed in the decathlon.”

While decathletes like Rafer Johnson and Bob Mathias had created an American stranglehold on this ten-discipline event of running, jumping and throwing, the overwhelming favorite to win gold in 1964 was the Asian Iron Man from Taiwan, C. K. Yang. Yang barely lost to his close friend and UCLA teammate at the 1960 Rome Olympic. The fight, they said, would be for silver. As it turns out, Holdorf won gold, while his German teammate, Hans-Joachim Walde took silver, and a third German finished sixth – an amazing result.

Willi Holdorf_The Olympic Century
Willi Holdorf in the decathlon high jump, from the book The Olympic Century XVIII Olympiad:

Highly publicized changes to the decathlon rules prior to the Tokyo Olympics resulted in fewer points assessed to decathletes who had a specialization that was far superior to others in the field. In other words, if an athlete was dominant in a particular event, prior to 1964, they could get an outsized number of points and take an outsized lead. But that advantage was diminished with the rule change. Fortunately for the German squad, they had a decathlon coach, Friedel Schirmer, who had the philosophy to take advantage – consistency uber alles.

Returning home to Germany as a sickly solider after surviving captivity in the Soviet Union shortly after the end of World War II, Schirmer went on to become a seven-time all Germany champion in the decathlon, representing Germany as the flag bearer in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He placed eighth in those Olympics, but it was his philosophy that had such an impact that Germany would consistently medal in the Olympic decathlon in the years following 1964. Here’s how Carl Posey explained it in the book, The Olympic Century XVIII Olympiad:

Every elite decathlete’s score took a dip because of the table revisions, but the least affected was a group of Germans. These men were all coached by Friedel Schirmer, who stressed consistency in every event rather than excellence in one or two. Foremost among his protégés was Willi Holdorf, a balding, 24-year-old physical education student from Leverkusen. Holdorf took the decathlon lead after the first event, the 100-meter dash. He fell back as far as fourth place after the shot put and high jump, while the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Storozhenko surged to the front on the strength of a tremendous put. Holdorf regained the lead after the 400 meters and maintained it through the final five events. The gold medalist’s score of 7,887 points was well short of a record, nevertheless, the Tokyo Games validated Schirmer’s decathlon philosophy. Germans claimed three of the top six spots, and Schirmer-trained athletes would dominate the event for the rest of the decade.

Willi Holdorf after 1500 meter race
Willi Holdorf after the decathlon 1500-meter race, from the book, Tokyo Olympiad Kyodo News Service

Sports Illustrated in their November 2, 1964 issue explained that Schirmer had studied up on Soviet and American training techniques and after becoming coach of the German decathlon squad worked them hard in a series of biweekly training and competitive sessions, gearing them for Tokyo. In the end, as is the case in many decathlons, it came down to the tenth and final event, the 1500-meter race. Like Johnson in 1960, Holdorf did not need to win, but he needed to do well enough to maintain his point lead.

In Tokyo, Holdorf took an early lead and held it, though as the exhausting 1,500-meter run, the final event, began, three men were still close enough to beat him. Particularly dangerous were Russia’s Rein Aun and America’s Paul Herman, both of whom could run much faster 1,500s than the German. “I knew that I could win if I could stay within 60 meters of Aun and 100 meters of Herman,” said Holdorf, a tall, balding blond who is built like a wedge of custard pie standing on its point. Aun took an immediate lead, with Herman in desperate pursuit and Holdorf gradually falling farther and farther behind. But at the finish Holdorf, tottering half-conscious over the line, was close enough to salvage victory from Aun by the narrow margin of 45 points.