Frank Shorter was settling into a routine as he was just days away from the biggest race of his life. It was 1972 and he was back in the city of his birth — Munich, Germany — for the Olympic Games.
The organizers of the Games were determined to show the world a new Germany, as well as a stark contrast to the lasting visions of flags bearing swastikas waving in the breeze at the 1936 Berlin Games.
At these Games, called the ‘Serene Olympics,’ the guards at the Olympic Village didn’t want to ruffle feathers. Passes were not checked closely. Shorter’s roommate, Dave Wottle, was recently married and his wife — using a fake pass — was staying in the Village with him.
To give them privacy, Shorter took to sleeping on a mattress on the balcony of the apartment. That’s where he was when he heard the shots on the morning of Sept. 5. The shots woke him up, but he was unsure what he had heard. Listening intently and hearing nothing else, he wondered if he had simply heard a slamming door. Shorter drifted back to sleep as Arab terrorists took Israeli hostages less than 100 yards away.
After a day of demands and negotiations, the terrorists took the remaining hostages to Furstenfeldbruck airbase. About 20 hours after the drama began, the hostages were killed by the terrorists after a failed rescue attempt by German police.
The athletes back at the Olympic Village were devastated. In this confusing and sad time, Shorter wasn’t sure that competing even made sense. He had a difficult decision ahead.
“At first we thought it would be better to just go home,” said Shorter. “Nothing is more important than a human life. After the memorial service we all began to realize that we had to go on and compete, because otherwise the terrorists would ‘win.'”
For Shorter the 1972 Olympic marathon was to be the culmination of an unexpected journey. Heading into his senior season at Yale, he had never won a Heptagonal Championship [Ivy League plus Army & Navy] event. Not in cross country, not indoor, and not outdoor. He had been good enough to twice finish second at the cross country championships, but both times a distant second to Harvard’s Doug Hardin.
He asked his coach, Bob Giegengack, how good he could become and his legendary mentor told him that he could have a future in running. Encouraged by the response, Shorter redoubled his efforts, training harder than ever before for his last year of collegiate competition.
He may have been the nation’s most improved runner that year. He had the fastest indoor times in the nation in both the mile and two-mile and took second in the two-mile at the NCAA Indoor Championship. Shorter finally had his first Heps title at the outdoor championship at Franklin Field that May, winning the two-mile. He also took second in a photo finish against Harvard’s Royce Shaw in the mile.
At the outdoor NCAAs in the spring of 1969, Shorter’s confidence was matched by his performance. He won the first final of the meet, the six-mile run, by more than 250 yards. With that victory Shorter became the first trackman from Yale to win an NCAA title in 20 years. Two days later Shorter almost took another national title, losing the three-mile run to Ole Oleson of Southern Cal by about a second.
Those events led Shorter to pursue his Olympic dreams, dreams that had been nurtured by Giegengack, the coach of the 1964 U.S. Olympic track team. “He would always regale us with stories of what it was like to be at the Olympics,” Shorter once wrote. “Listening to him made me want to get there, and to have the kind of experience they had. I wanted to have the Olympic experience, to mingle with people from other countries. And I did. That was the way it really turned out to be.”
After realizing his potential in the spring of 1969, Shorter spent three years establishing himself as the best distance runner in the United States. In 1970 he won national championships in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs as well as cross country. The next year he repeated in both the 10,000 and cross country. He also claimed the 10,000 and the marathon at the Pan American Games in 1971.
The 1972 U.S. Olympic Trials featured a distance revolution, spearheaded by Shorter and a young phenom from Oregon — Steve Prefontaine. Those two went out so fast, other runners would run to exhaustion trying to keep up. Prefontaine took the 5,000 at the Trials — held at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. — while Shorter claimed both the 10,000 and the marathon.
As the Olympics approached, Shorter was primed to become the first American to win a medal in the marathon since 1924. Following the tragic events and the International Olympic Committee’s decision to resume the Games, Shorter was ready.
“There were other athletes who were really thrown off by the delay, their routines and superstitions were broken up. There were some people who I knew wouldn’t be a factor in the race because they were so troubled by the delay, and the way it disrupted their training patterns. I told myself as I covered the course of the race that I would not think about what had happened, and I never did.”
Shorter — who called the marathon “a battle against slowing down” — took the lead around the nine-mile mark and never again trailed, handing Belgian Karel Lismont his first marathon loss. Yet Shorter’s entrance into the Olympic Stadium was odd. A man posing as a runner had entered the stadium before Shorter and the crowd was jeering and booing the imposter as Shorter appeared. But nothing could take away his gold-medal performance.
On the bus back to the Olympic Village after the medal ceremony, Shorter had a chance meeting with Giegengack, whom he had not seen in two years. “He said to me, simply, ‘Your life will never be the same.’ He was right.”
“I dont think I understand [the impact of his performance] yet, but that makes sense because I trained and competed to see how good I could get. There was never a grand business plan to capitalize on the achievement and use it to implement social change.”
Yet that’s exactly what happened. There were magazine covers, including three appearances on Sports Illustrated, and he was credited with causing the nation’s first running boom. Runners World’s John Brant wrote, “The boom, so often linked to Frank Shorter winning the 1972 Olympic Marathon, inspired thousands of Americans in the early 1970s to run seriously for the first time.”
While running dominated Shorter’s life, he also continued to prepare for his post-competition life. “I have always tried to remember that one can go on from major accomplishments and still do more with one’s life,” he said.
He prepared for the 1976 Montreal Olympics while earning a law degree from the University of Florida. Shorter would take home the silver medal in the marathon from those Games and, soon after, open his own successful sportswear company — Frank Shorter Sports. He also served as an Olympics commentator and became the chairman of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. All the while, he continued to run… and run. In fact, he estimates that he has logged more than 180,000 miles in his running lifetime.
Known for training hard, he explained it by saying, “It’s just more fun to run fast.”
In 2003, Shorter was asked his fondest memory of Yale track and he replied, “Running the two-mile at indoor track meets in Cox Cage. I can still smell the wet cinders and feel the closeness of the spectators.”
That track is no longer a bed of cinders and — since February 2006 — it has been known as the Frank Shorter Track. At the official ceremony to rename the track, Shorter’s Bulldog teammate and long-time Yale coach Mark Young said, “Frank revolutionized running in America. I’m excited and delighted he is being honored in this way.”
Shorter was quick to talk about Coach Giegengack — who, like Shorter, is a member of the Track & Field Hall of Fame. “His spirit is one that pervades this facility,” he said. “He would teach you how to coach yourself and that’s what I did.”
It served him well.
This story was written by Brett Hoover in 2006 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.