David Wottle on Winners Podium
02 Sep 1972, Munich, Germany — Hand over heart, America;s David Wottle stands on winner’s podium after receiving the Gold Medal in the Olympic men’s 800 meter race here today 9/2, with Soviet Silver Medal winner Evgeni Arzhanov in front of him, and Mike Boit (left) of Kenya, the Bronze medalist, behind. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
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

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Lasse Viren wins 5000m gold in Montreal
Lasse Virén of Finland winning gold in the 5,000 meters in Montreal

When you fall in a highly competitive race, it’s over for you, particularly for sprinters. But even in long-distance foot races, falling not only places you way in the back of the pack, it becomes a psychological burden as you see your competitors fly by you.

And yet, Lasse Virén of Finland was not fazed. Virén was competing in the 10,000 meters in the Munich Olympics in 1972. It was the 12th lap of a 25-lap race when Virén’s leg hit the leg of Belgian runner, Emiel Puttemans, sending Virén tumbling to the cinder track. Famed Tunisian runner, Mohamed Gammoudi, also took a nasty spill tripping over Virén’s body. Virén, who fell behind by 20 meters, got up quickly, and re-started those long strides, getting back into the race after four laps.

In the last lap and a half, Virén stepped on the gas. But as this thrilling account from The Guardian relates, the man whose leg sent Virén to the ground 12 laps earlier was now breathing down Virén’s back.

At the bell, Virén raised the pace yet again, and Yifter was unable to respond. The air was suddenly too thick for his limbs. But Puttemans held on. The small Belgian, his face contorting with determination, closed the slight gap that Virén had opened up. ‘I believed I had a chance to win the gold medal,’ he said later. ‘Lasse was five metres ahead and I knew I must take my chance going into the final bend.’ So Puttemans moved on to Virén’s shoulder. The Finn accelerated. ‘As we came round to the home straight,’ Puttemans said, ‘I knew the gold was his.’ You could see Puttemans absorb this painful truth, but make an instantaneous reappraisal of ambition: he looked over his shoulder, to make sure Yifter was far enough behind him to be no threat, and settled for silver.

Virén not only won, but smashed the world record for the 10,000 meter race that had stood for seven years. Virén went on to win the 5,000 meter competition in the Munich Games, accomplishing the so-called “double”, which had been done only three times prior to Virén, and three times after him. Even more amazingly, Virén did it again, winning both the 5,000m and 10,000m races at the Montreal Games in 1976, the only “Double-Double” ever.

You can watch Virén years later watching himself win the 10,000 meter race in Munich on video below.

 

lennon and ono
John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Today in Japan, it is December 9, but in the US, it is still December 8, the day John Lennon was murdered, the day the music died.

On the closing day of the Munich Olympics in 1972, the torch was extinguished, the lingering waves of joy of Olympic competition and camaraderie merging with countervailing waves of sadness. Eleven Israeli athletes had been killed by the hand of terrorists. According to the book, Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience, athletes left the closing ceremony and gathered in the Olympic Village. And as the athletes struggled with their mixed and roiling emotions, a song by John Lennon unified them all.

Lennon Memorial Central Park_14Dec80 #1
At the John Lennon memorial event at Central Park on December 14, 1980_photo taken by Roy Tomizawa
Following the closing ceremony, the athletes returned to the Village and converged on the discotheque. John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ was played several times with its poignant relevance. Fencer Susie Murphy’s overriding memory of Munich was a touchingly united scene with athletes of all nations singing along to Lennon in one unified voice, arms round each other’s shoulders, in defiance of the atrocity.

Munich Massacre
West German policemen wearing sweatsuits, bullet-proof vests and armed with submachine guns, take up positions on September 5, 1972 on Olympic Village rooftops where armed Palestinians were holding Israeli team members hostage

The terrorist attacks on Paris last month are still likely jagged memories for many. I shudder to think of what could have been if the suicide bomber had successfully made her way into the Stade de France during the football match between the French and German national teams.

The singular most horrific terrorist attack in an Olympic Games are when eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and killed during the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, Germany. A Palestinian group called Black September, a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) smuggled rifles, pistols and grenades into the Olympic Village on September 5, 1972, before dawn, while athletes slept.

Details of those events have been depicted in articles, books and film. But until recently, the level of cruelty the Israeli athletes suffered had not been known, according to this New York Times article. The reporter explains that German authorities had hundreds of pages of reports depicting the 20-hours the athletes were held hostage, but until recently denied they had existed.

Israeli victims
Six of the 11 Israeli hostages killed by the Palestinian ‘Black September’ cell at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Yossef Romano, the torture victim, is top center

The families of victims were actually aware of these reports and never-released photos of the massacre since 1992. A documentary called “Munich 72 & Beyond” will be released in early 2016.

Munich-1972-Beyond

The International Olympic Committee has had a long, uneasy relationship with families of the Munich victims. According to this New York Times article, they have been lobbying the IOC for official recognition of those killed during the Munich Olympics. They are hoping that the IOC will create awareness of that day in September to the Games in August, 2016, in Rio.

In fact, progress has been made and a memorial will be built in Germany, very near the building where the Israeli athletes were taken hostage. The memorial, which will open to the public in September, 2016, is being funded by the local Bavarian government, the German federal government, as well as the IOC and the Foundation for Global Sports Development.

Perhaps progress has been due to a change in IOC leadership in 2013. The current IOC head is Thomas Bach, a German. In addition to the memorial in Germany, Bach announced there will also be a memorial erected in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games.

“We want to give the athletes the opportunity to express their mourning in a dignified way and environment in the Olympic Village where representatives of the whole world are living peacefully under the same roof,” (Bach) said. “At the Closing Ceremony, the Games come to an end and many people feel that it is a moment to remember people who have died at the Olympic Games.”