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Olympian Frank Shorter - Memories of Munich

Frank Shorter

From grief to Olympic gold: Marathoner Frank Shorter's memories of Munich

By John Meyer
Denver Post

BOULDER -- For Frank Shorter, returning to Munich meant reliving one of the greatest achievements of his life, along with one of the greatest tragedies in sports history. And, as he discovered recently, there is a point where they intersect.

On a bridge near the Munich Olympic Stadium today stands a memorial to 11 Israeli athletes slain by Arab terrorists at the 1972 Summer Games. Shorter traveled to Germany this month to take part in a television documentary marking the 40-year anniversary. And when he visited the memorial, he remembered that spot well.

Four decades ago, Shorter crossed that bridge, walking back to the athletes village after a memorial service for the slain Israelis at the Olympic Stadium. Where the memorial stands now, Shorter told good friend and fellow marathoner Kenny Moore back then they could be in danger during their race after the Games resumed.

"I'm not going to think about it," Shorter remembers telling Moore. "Because if I do, they win."

And five days after the terrorist attack, Shorter countered that horror with an act of heroism, becoming the first American in 64 years to win a gold medal in the marathon.

"I remember Frank Shorter saying that dwelling on our own winning or losing seemed monstrous when measured against the death of our brethren," Moore recalled years later. "All we could do when the race got tough was compare our paltry sacrifice with their supreme one. He transformed sorrow into Olympic gold."

The marathon is 26.2 miles of physical torment, but it is also a test of mind and will. Shorter needed both that day.

"I have faith in the human nature response," Shorter said, sitting on his back porch in north Boulder last week after returning from Germany. "Your immediate response cannot be fear, because fear is the major objective of the terrorist act. You simply decide, and make yourself not be fearful. If you can do that, it allows you to be more objective. And then, at least my thought process then goes on to, 'OK, what can we do? What do we do?' Then, as long as you feel that you've done all you can do, you just have to let go of any fear and see what happens."

Shorter might not have been frightened en route to winning a gold medal widely credited with sparking America's first running boom, but he was horrified on the morning of Sept. 5, 1972. Overnight, eight Black September terrorists burst into the Israeli dorm and took hostages. Steve Prefontaine, an iconic 5,000-meter runner who was fluent in German, translated news coverage on German TV for Shorter and his dorm mates. They could see the Israeli dorm from their balcony about 150 yards away.

Looking back, Shorter remembers being struck by how "stupid" it was for them to watch the hooded terrorist on the balcony across the courtyard, because they could have been shot.

"All that guy has to do is tk-tk-tk-tk-tk-tk," Shorter recalls telling Moore, making a sound to imitate a machine gun, "and we're dead."

The terrorists negotiated for helicopters to take them to an airfield, where a jetliner would supposedly take them and the hostages to Egypt. In reality, the Germans were planning an ambush.

"When they landed, they flew right over our heads and across the courtyard," Shorter said of the helicopters. "A few minutes later, they take off. I turned to Kenny and said, 'I don't think this is over.' "

It wasn't. In the ambush, the hostages and terrorists were killed. German authorities were widely criticized for bungling the operation. Shorter believes Israel should have turned loose the Mossad.

"Who are the best people in the world for dealing with terrorists, and especially Palestinian terrorists?" Shorter said. "The Mossad should have been on the first plane out of Israel."

"Suicidal quality of it all"

In the years that followed, Israeli commandos tracked down and executed many who were involved in planning the Black September operation. Shorter has no problem with the retaliation but said he felt no hatred at the time of the attack.

"No, I felt sadness," Shorter said. "I think it's when I first understood the suicidal quality of it all. Now, everybody understands suicide missions. Until that time, I don't think people really understood that terrorists were basically on a suicide mission, because it wasn't a Western attitude. The Western attitude is: Go in there, get away with it, become famous. Not go in there, get killed, have 52 vestal virgins and be a martyr. That's how crazy this is."

Shorter also saw the attack as a reality check on the human condition.

"It's such an irony of existence," Shorter said. "Why can't people, just every once in a while, in those kinds of situations, all sit down and say: 'You know what? Let's just think of the numbers. How lucky are you, and how lucky am I, of even existing? We are so lucky, you and I, just to be here right at this instant. What are the odds? Why can't we just start from there? Why are we trying to blow this?' Why, along with that good fortune, goes this self-destructive quality of the human species?"

After the crisis ended, a debate raged over whether the Games should resume. Shorter and Moore were adamant that they should -- not out of self-interest, but to take a stand.

"This was an act of war," Moore said. "If there is any place war doesn't belong, it's the Olympics. In the ancient Olympics, our brethren put down their arms in wars to take part in the Games. The Games were higher and more sacred than the outcome of war. Their answer to war was competition. That had to be our answer."

Shorter said memories of his childhood, when he was physically abused by his father, helped him cope in Munich.

'By the time I was 5, 6 years old, I knew I didn't deserve that," Shorter said. "I realized it was a horrific situation and that nobody deserved it. I think that helped me in Munich, because I was used to being in circumstances with a demonic person who wanted to hurt me. And I knew right away that those terrorists simply wanted to kill people to make a point, and it didn't matter who it was. The Israeli athletes, they were the victims of a demonic act. Nothing that they had done, or anyone else had done, could justify it.

"You're not openly defiant, but you're defiant in your own mind."

Changing marathon strategy

There was a race to run. In those days Shorter lived in Florida, but he frequently trained in Colorado because he was an early proponent of altitude training. He spent three months that year training in Vail with Jeff Galloway and Jack Bacheler, coming down to Boulder twice a week for interval workouts. Those interval workouts served him well in Munich.

In the marathon, on the last day of a sad Summer Games, Shorter made a bold breakaway nine miles into the race. The pack didn't go with him, and Shorter remembers thinking, 'They're making a big mistake.' No one was catching him.

"If you want to look back at it historically, I'm willing to argue that was the moment in time where the marathon became a race rather than a survival contest," Shorter said. "Up until then, everybody ran the race the way everybody else did. That wasn't my strength."

After graduating from law school at the University of Florida, Shorter moved to Boulder in 1974 and has lived there since. At the 1976 Olympics he won the silver medal in a marathon won by East German Waldemar Cierpinski.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, documents were discovered that proved Cierpinski was part of his country's infamous government-run doping program. In 1999 Shorter helped found the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and served as its first chairman.

But he always will be remembered for his run in Munich 40 years ago.

"He wanted to run hard all the way, and make it hurt, and make it honest to be a worthy answer -- to really transmute the agonies and loss and grief and wretchedness and evil of the attack," said Moore, who finished fourth that day. "It was the finest example, that I've been close to, of somebody turning all the misery of life into a golden performance."

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