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Olympic Memories: Munich's Marathon Imposter, Frank Shorter, and the 'running boom' of the 1970s


(Above) The race gets under way in the Olympiastadion, with Frank Shorter on the far right.

The 1972 Olympic marathon was on the last day of a Games in which the events themselves had been rendered meaningless by the terrorist murder of eleven Isreali athletes and officials five days previously. As Frank Shorter, the winner of the race, later reflected:

'We went through all the stages. Our initial reaction was "We're all going home, nothing is worth human life". And then after the memorial service...we realised you had to keep going because if you didn't the terrorists win'.

(Left) The flags of the competing nations at half mast around the Olympic flame during the Memorial Service for the victims of the terrorist atrocity. For the first time in Olympic history all competitions were suspended.

However no-one could have predicted the bizarre finish to the Munich Olympic Marathon or the long-term ramifications of Shorter's victory.

(Above) West German student Norbert Sudhaus runs into the stadium.

Recently found in the Colorsport archive are never-before-seen pictures of an imposter who fooled the crowd into believing he was about to win the race, drawing applause which quickly turned to ire when it was realised he was not a competitor. West German student Norbert Sudhaus ludicrously ran into the stadium in shorts and a running vest moments before Shorter, getting half-way around the track before he was removed by officials. Erich Segal's cry to ABC television's viewers of "It's a fraud, Frank!" became known in the States as one of sports' most famous moments of commentary. Sudhaus' motivation for pulling the stunt was never made clear. In any case by the time the real race-leader came into the stadium boos were ringing out, hardly the sort of reception a man who was about to be crowned Olympic champion of the greatest test of distance running was entitled to expect:

'The thought I honestly had was "Geez, I'm an American but give me a break. You're frustrated." Then I started to run around and people started whistling and booing. Finally, someone from the stands yelled "Don't worry Frank". I said to myself "Why should I worry? I'm winning"...I think many of the people had empathy for me. They were thinking "Oh my gosh, he thinks he didn't win". But I had backed off. If somebody had gone by me, I would have known it.

The great thing about it for me over time has been that I knew then and I still know now that I never ran for that roar or for the cheers.'

(Above) Sudhaus runs round the track as, top, officials look on.

(Above) Top, Shorter enters the stadium himself, and, bottom, holds his head in his hands after crossing the line.

Sudhaus' untimely intrusion also makes for one of the more bizarre facts in Olympic history - three Americans have won the men's marathon gold medal, and on each occasion they were not the first athlete to enter the stadium at the finish of the race. In St Louis in 1904 Tom Hicks' thunder was stolen by compatriot Fred Lorz, who had abandoned the race after nine miles, hitched a ride in his manager's car, and rejoined the race five miles from the end as a prank and was paraded as the winner before he admitted his stunt. Hicks' own race had been bizarre, walking some of it due to fatigue before gaining a 'second wind' after being administered two doses of strychnine (then legal) with brandy by US team assistants, which came close to killing him! Four years later in London Italian Doranado Piertri was famously disqualified for illegal assistance after being helped to his feet and over the line by officials after taking ten minutes to complete the last 350 metres of the race having repeatedly fallen to the ground exhausted. Johnny Haynes was awarded the gold after the US team appealed.

(Above) An illustration of the famous moment Piertri was helped over the line in the White City Stadium in 1908. CREDIT: COLORSPORT/BARRETT COLLECTION

(Left) Eventual 1908 Olympic marathon champion Johnny Haynes is paraded around the stadium with the winner's trophy by his teammates. CREDIT: COLORSPORT/BARRETT COLLECTION

Shorter's victory, in the then-second fastest Olympic marathon time of 2 hours, 12 minutes, 19.71 seconds, and the drama of the finish are also credited with popularising the marathon in the United States and acting as the catalyst for the 'running boom' that lasted well into the 1980s. Millions of Americans took up the sport, with road races springing up in towns and cities across the country. Jim Fixx's 'Complete Book of Running' became a best-seller, while US athletes dominated the world racing scene.

(Above) Shorter celebrates his 1972 marathon victory with fourth-place teammate Kenny Moore.

Shorter himself shot to national fame and won the James E. Sullivan Award for the country's top amateur athlete. He competed at the next Olympics in Montreal, where he won the silver medal behind East Germany's Waldemar Cierpinski, who took the gold in only his fifth competitive marathon. In light of the many revelations of the former communist bloc's blood doping programmes during those years, including specific allegations against Cierpinski, many feel Shorter was again beaten into the stadium by a fraud. This is especially ironic considering Shorter himself was later instrumental in the setting up of the United States Anti-Doping Agency and has served as its chairman. He later commented:

'Don Kardong (who finished fourth in the 1976 race) likes to tell me that I've been in the Olympics twice, and twice I've finished right behind an imposter. I've always thought that was very interesting...I believe more and more in karma now. I've looked at the film and both times I hit the track 48 seconds behind the roar. That just doesn't happen. I remember the second time I heard the roar. I knew I was in about the same spot, only this time it's the guy finishing ahead of me. I'm thinking to myself, "I am never going to hear this roar.'' But that's how I react to this stuff you know?'

(Above) Cierpinski wins the 1976 Olympic marathon. He defended his title four years later in Moscow. However in the late 1990s he was named in documents found in the archives of the Stasi, the secret police service of East Germany, which detailed the GDR's doping of athletes.

You cant watch the extraordinary closing moments of the 1972 Olympic marathon here, complete with bemused BBC commentary, or watch it below.

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