By Jim Irish
Dave Wottle experienced the best and the worst of times around the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.
Six days after the U.S. Olympic trials, on July 15, Wottle married his fiancee, Jan Pressler. In doing so, he went against the advice of U.S. Olympic head track coach Bill Bowerman, an old-school coach who thought sex before competition “weakened your legs.” Wottle proved otherwise at the Olympics. The Wottles recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
At the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. in July, Wottle, a 22-year-old undergraduate at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, qualified for the Games in both the 800-meter dash and the 1,500-meter run. Mel Brodt, Wottle’s Bowling Green coach, had encouraged him to run the 800 at the national AAU meet and earn a qualifying time to the trials.
“If you qualify for the Olympic trials, we’ll have you run the 800 as kind of a speed workout for the mile,” Wottle remembered Brodt telling him.
Wottle clocked 1 minute, 47.4 seconds at the national AAU meet and qualified for the trials.
“There was no thought that I’d probably make it into the Olympics (in the 800), but (Brodt) put me in there,” Wottle said in a telephone conversation in June. “One thing led to another.”
Wottle ties Snell's world record in the 800 at the Olympic trials
Wottle not only won the 800 at the trials but also tied the world record of 1:44.3 seconds by New Zealand’s Peter Snell.
“It was a shock, improving my time three seconds in two weeks,” Wottle said.
Despite his world-record tying time, Wottle had serious doubts about his ability in the event.
“I never really thought of myself as a half-miler because I never felt I had the leg speed,” he said. “I could maintain a pace, but I didn’t have the speed a lot of half-milers had. I had more endurance. I never felt that I could stick with them, especially when they went out fast.”
That doubt would change dramatically at the Olympics.
At the Olympic track stadium on Sept. 2, Wottle, a certified miler, stormed from last place to claim the gold medal in the 800-meter dash final by a fraction of a second, an event he had run only a handful of times.
“I always tell people I was half-miler for about three months — from the AAU meet before the Olympic trials through the Olympics,” Wottle said. “Other than that, I was a miler.”
After suffering tendonitis in his left meniscus at the Olympic training camp, Wottle was forced to slash his workouts from 70-80 miles a week to zero for a couple of weeks. He only managed to return to 20-25 miles a week before the Games.
"I went into the Olympics not feeling overly confident, but when I stepped on the track I was like every other competitor. I figured I was gonna win."
-- Dave Wottle on his attitude about Olympic competition
“I went into the Olympics not feeling overly confident, but when I stepped on the track I was like every other competitor,” he said. “I figured I was gonna win.”
Wottle sailed through the first heat of the 800 at the track stadium but found himself boxed in the final 100 meters of the semifinals.
“My adrenaline was pumping sky high, thinking I had no way out of the box,” he said. “Fortunately, the runner in front of me pushed to the outside of lane one to move the competition out farther. To me, it was like the parting of the Red Sea. I shot through the hole and went on to win the semis (in 1:48.7).”
Soviet Union's Arzhanov undefeated in 800 for three years
In the final, Yevgeny Arzhanov of the Soviet Union was considered the favorite, not having lost in a major competition for three years. Kenya’s Mike Boit and Robert Ouko were medal contenders.
At the gun, the leaders went out fast, running the first 200 in 24.9 seconds. Wearing his iconic golf cap, Wottle, 6-foot, 139 pounds, was in last place, trailing by as much as 10 meters in the first 200. Wottle was so far behind that ABC television announcer Jim McKay wondered aloud if he was injured.
“I was a different runner in the Olympics,” Wottle said. “At the trials, I was in tip-top shape, and I could hang with people. I wouldn’t have given them so much distance (in the 800 Olympic final). But with the injury and the fact they went out quickly and my lack of training, I was probably 85% with conditioning.”
As the furious pace slowed in the second 200 meters, Wottle moved into striking distance at the beginning of the bell lap. He began to pass runners with 300 meters remaining. On the outside lane in the final 25 meters, he first passed Ouko and then Boit. Arzhanov appeared out of reach, but Wottle closed quickly with the packed stadium of 77,000 spectators roaring and edged him by .03 hundredths of a second in 1:45.86. Arzhanov fell across the final line to take the silver medal. Boit grabbed the bronze.
Wottle went from runner to runner after the race with a serious expression on his face. ABC commentator Marty Liquori said Wottle looked stunned.
“I don’t think he realizes what’s he’s done,” Liquori said.
The comeback was one of the greatest in Olympic history, rivaling Billy Mills’ victory in the 10,000 meters in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
"Bottom line: the race was perfect for the condition I was in. They went out, and they came back to me. It wasn't like I ran them down. I just maintained the same pace. ..."
-- Wottle about his victory in the 800-meter dash
“Bottom line: the race was perfect for the condition I was in,” Wottle said. “They went out, and they came back to me. It wasn’t like I ran them down. I just maintained the same pace. They went out fast and slowed down, which allowed me to get contact after the first lap. I was able to relax a little bit.”
Wottle said Arzhanov made a tactical error in sprinting to the lead with 300 meters remaining.
“He had very good closing speed,” Wottle said about Arzhanov. “He took off with 300 meters to go, which he almost never did. He usually just hung around and closed down the home stretch. He ran out of steam.”
At the medal ceremony, Wottle forgot to remove his cap during the playing of the U.S. national anthem. Some thought it was a protest of the Vietnam war. He later apologized.
Terrorist attack at Olympic village
The 1,500 round one heats at the Games were scheduled for Sept. 8. However, Black September, a Palestinian militant organization, darkened the Games, entering the Olympic village under the cover of darkness and taking Israeli athletes and coaches hostage on Sept. 5. Before the terrorist attack ended, 11 Israelis were murdered.
Wottle and roommate Frank Shorter, who won the gold medal in the marathon at the Munich Games, saw it unfold from their apartment window.
“No words to describe it,” Wottle said about the terrorist attack. “We were only 100 yards away from where it was all happening. We were right there. They didn’t evacuate the Olympic village, kind of roped it off.”
After a one-day stoppage, the International Olympic Committee decided to continue the Games.
"We had to block it out, focus on our races."
-- Wottle on the aftermath of the terrorist attack
“Frank had the marathon; I had the 1,500,” Wottle said. “We had to block it out, focus on our races.”
In the first-round heat of the 1,500, Wottle had no trouble advancing, finishing second in 3:40.7 behind Germany’s Thomas Wessinghage in 3:40.6.
The semifinal heat was another story, one that lingers in Wottle’s memory fifty years later.
Wottle ran far behind the leaders, finding himself sprinting desperately at the end to finish in the top three and advance to the final.
He finished with the same time of 3:41.6 as Denmark’s Tom Hansen, but Hansen advanced in a photo finish.
"That was my greatest disappointment obviously. ..."
-- Wottle on not advancing to the 1,500 final.
“That was my greatest disappointment obviously,” Wottle said about not advancing to the 1,500 final. “My goal was to win the 1,500 meters. I felt absolutely great in that semifinal run. I got overconfident. I just thought, ‘Hey, I’m feelin’ so good, I can give these guys a little more distance and kick ‘em at the end.’
“It was all my fault. It was a tactical error on my part. I waited too late. I started (the kick) about at the top of the home stretch. (Hansen) had more fight in him than I gave him credit for. He edged me out. I couldn’t quite catch him.”
Wottle kept a workout log with a column listing how he felt in the races. In the 800 final, he marked “good.” In the 1,500 semifinals, he “felt excellent.”
“I was feeling the best of any of the races,” he added about the 1,500.
In the 1,500 final the next day, Hansen finished last. Finland’s Pekka Vasala won the gold in 3:36.3.
“I think the disappointing thing for me was that in the final (Hansen) was dead last,” Wottle said. “It took everything out of him in the semifinals.”
In a matter of days, Wottle had experienced what McKay famously spoke on Wide World of Sports: “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”
U.S. hasn't captured Olympic gold medal in 800 since Wottle's victory
No American since Wottle has captured the gold medal in the 800 in the Olympics.
Wottle listed a couple of reasons for American lack of success in the event.
“I think basically you have to look at other countries coming up,” he said. “Who would have thought before 1972 that someone from Cuba would be as good as (Alberto) Juantorena.”
Kenyans, meanwhile, have won six gold medals in the 800 since 1972.
“Other countries, especially Kenya, they’ve really come up,” Wottle said. “That’s hampered us more than anything.”
Professionalism in track and field has also played a major role in changing the landscape, Wottle added. He competed as an amateur and received $3 a day per diem at the Olympics.
“(Now) there’s a livelihood you can get in track and field where you can make a lot of money,” Wottle said.
Wottle retired his golf cap soon after the Olympics. It is among the memorabilia at the National Track and Field Hall of Fame Museum at the Armory in New York City. Olympic running competitors, except for the marathoners, are no longer allowed to wear caps.
Jim Irish is a freelance writer living outside Austin, Texas.