Citius, Altius, Fortius. Part 2: Munich 1972

9th August 2020

The previous blog – “Citius, Altius, Fortius: Part 1” (31st July)was published on the day that the programme of athletics events was due to have started at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo and referred to some of the athletics highlights that I recall from the 1968 Games in Mexico City. In this follow-up – on the day that the athletics schedule was due to have been completed in Japan – I move the story on to the Munich Games of 1972.

These were the two Olympiads that took place during my teenage years when – I would argue – memories of sporting achievements are particularly susceptible to being firmly lodged in the back of one’s mind. As before, my recollections are of the black-and-white images that I viewed on television at the time supplemented – if this is not cheating too much – by the library of footage that is now available on YouTube.

(In passing, it might be noted that the YouTube collection of Olympic action includes a limited amount of material that dates all the way back to the first modern Games in Athens in 1896. It will no doubt hurt most modern sensibilities that the unofficial events in the next Games in Paris in 1900 included shooting – that is, shooting live pigeons. The film of those events appears to have been lost, fortunately. For the record, Leon de Lunden of Belgium and Donald Mackintosh of Australia were the winners).

Nearly half a century on, the Olympic Games of 1972 are chiefly remembered for the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. I remember being told about the attack on the Olympic village when I turned up for a 1st XV rugby training session at school. I also recall the following week’s cover of The Economist magazine: the famous photograph of a masked terrorist looking out over the balcony of the athletes’ apartment with the journal’s prescient heading “He and his kind will be among us for the rest of our lives”.

I focus here on three athletics events.

* Women’s pentathlon

There were 14 track and field events contested by women in Munich. (The longest distance race was the 1,500 metres, newly introduced). Of the available gold medals, 6 were claimed by East Germany, 4 by West Germany and 3 by the Soviet Union. The other – in the pentathlon – was won by Mary Peters of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As with David Hemery in the men’s 400 metres hurdles event of 1968, this was GB & NI’s only gold medal in athletics and, not surprisingly, it was the focus of the BBC’s television coverage. My recollection is of the tension in the moments before the times for the last event (the 200 metres) were announced, as it was clear that whoever won the overall event had done so by the narrowest of margins. It turned out that Peters’s cumulative score of 4801 points (a new world record) was just 10 points higher – the equivalent of a tenth of a second in the final race – than that of the runner-up, Heide Rosendhal of West Germany (who had already won the women’s long jump and would later add another gold in the sprint relay).

Mary Peters’s background was from the NI component of GB & NI. Although she was born in Lancashire, she had moved with her family to Northern Ireland at the age of 11. She ended up representing NI at every Commonwealth Games between 1958 (when she was 19) and 1974.

The Northern Ireland of 1972 was a sorry place. The official records show that it was the worst year for casualties in “The Troubles” with 479 deaths (including 130 British soldiers) and 4,876 injuries. It would probably have been no surprise to Peters – a Protestant competing (and winning) for GB & NI – that she would receive the death threats that were duly made to the BBC. I cannot imagine the distress that these calls would have caused, particularly as, to add to this combustible mix – the very next day after her success – the Palestinian terrorists invaded the Israeli compound and confirmed that there were no boundaries of Olympic decency and respect for human life that could not be crossed.

Mary Peters insisted that she would return to Belfast, where she was greeted by her fans at the airport and paraded through the streets. She has remained a resident of Northern Ireland ever since. For reasons that go far beyond the limitations of mere athletic excellence, I think her Olympic gold is amongst the greatest achievements in British sport.

* Men’s 10,000 metres final

Finland produced some very impressive long-distance runners in the early 1970s, thereby extending its reputation for success in these events that had been firmly established in the inter-war period. In 1971, I recall watching the final of the European Championships 10,000 metres race on television, when the domestic interest focused on the British runner, David Bedford. Bedford was leading with about 300 metres to go, but then seemed to tread water as two sprint finishers – the Finn Juha Väätäinen(the eventual winner in front of his home Helsinki crowd) and Jürgen Haase of East Germany – swept past him. It was an astonishing piece of athletics drama: these men might have just run over 6 miles (at a fair lick), but they then accelerated through the gears as if they were top-of-the-range sports cars.

Väätäinen’s compatriot, Lasse Virén, won the gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres finals in Munich (and went on the repeat the feat four years later at the Montreal Games). The main recollection I have from 1972 is of Virén taking a heavy fall about half-way through the 10,000 metres race and being stranded on the track 30 metres or so behind his leading rivals.

This is perhaps slightly unfair but, at this point, one is tempted to fast-forward to the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, when the American favourite, Mary Decker, tripped and fell during the women’s 3,000 metres. (She had clipped the heels of the South African-born Zola Budd, who was representing Great Britain). Whereas Decker remained prone of the ground bemoaning her misfortune, Virén sprung to his feet, dusted himself off and chased after the leading pack, to which he attached himself again within about 150 metres. He took the lead on the penultimate lap and, after holding off the challenge of Emiel Puttemans – the Belgian runner who came second – won the race comfortably by about ten metres.

Wikipedia’s entry for Lasse Virén includes a fascinating reference to “bend (curve) mathematics”. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it is clever nonetheless. Virén ran almost all the bends near the inner edge of the first lane, thereby sparing himself tens of metres compared with his main rivals. (Think about how much the “stagger” is between individual lanes in a 400 metre race). It has been estimated that, in the 10,000 metres race in Munich, this gave him an advantage of about 50 metres over Puttemans, the latter having run many of the bends wide on the outer edge of the first lane or sometimes in the second lane.

* Men’s marathon

The Olympic marathon runners have attracted popular attention since the event appeared in Athens in 1896. There is dramatic footage on YouTube of the Italian, Dorando Pietri, in a state of some distress from exhaustion and dehydration, coming home first in London in 1908, only to be later disqualified as he had been helped over the line by officials; the great Czech runner Emil Zátopek combined his 1952 win in Helsinki with wins in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres finals; the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila famously won in Rome in 1960 running in bare feet (although he did wear running shoes when he took the gold medal again in Tokyo four year later)…

In Munich, the marathon was won by America’s Frank Shorter (who had actually been born in Germany). He must have had a shock in the closing stages when, certain that he had the lead, he entered the stadium to a chorus of boos and saw that there was another runner in front of him; it turned out that the crowd was simply venting its displeasure at the uninvited intervention of a student hoaxer, who had entered the race near its conclusion.

The significance of the 1972 event is that Shorter’s success is widely acknowledged to have kick-started (pardon the pun) the jogging boom in the United States. By 1976, when Shorter took the silver medal at the Montreal Games, the New York Marathon had over 1,500 finishers, compared with 259 in 1974 and 55 in 1970.

Other cities took up the baton for hosting marathons, including London in 1981, which I remember watching from a vantage point in Poplar High Street at about the 16-mile mark. In the glossy official programme for that event, it was noted that a further 25 marathons were scheduled across the UK over the remainder of that year – from Aberdeen to the Isle of Wight – and over 200 in the US.

The running business is now a global multi-billion dollar industry. Accordingly, it is reasonable to argue that Frank Shorter turned out to be one of the most significant of modern Olympians in terms of his impact on general societal trends. (On the other hand, within the boundaries of his own individual sport, that accolade would undoubtedly belong elsewhere: to Dick Fosbury, whose introduction of the high jump “Flop” at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City I mentioned last time).

One final thought about the Munich Games of 1972. It is of interest to note that the terrorist massacre of the Israelis halted the Games for a couple of days, but did not lead to their cancellation. I wonder what would happen if – heaven forbid – a similar outrage were to happen again? Would the Games be postponed – or cancelled – in the global wave of horror of the circumstances and empathy for the victims? Or would the powerful alliance of infrastructural, media and sporting interests result in only a temporary halt to the proceedings – as happened then – especially if it were married to the type of defiant “the terrorists won’t win” determination that saw many New Yorkers turn up for work in Manhattan on the day after 9/11. I can’t be sure of the answer – and I certainly hope that I never find out – but I think I know what it would be.

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