Dave Wottle: The thrilling memory of that gold medal at the Munich Olympics, a win that still inspires and entertains 50 years later

No sooner had the starting signal rang and Wottle watched the other competitors descend than the first wave of emotions hit. Within moments he found himself falling behind – by some distance.

“It made me have doubts like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m so far behind. Am I so out of shape that I can’t keep up with these guys?’”

But what unfolded as the race progressed is now Olympic folklore.

Gradually, Wottle gained ground over the other runners and was within range of the pack by the end of the first lap.

Relieved, his competitive spirit returned as he fixed his eye on those in front of him. He began passing other runners on the final lap and prepared to launch his kick – which he calls “attack mode” – with 200 meters to go.

Now Wottle’s hopes of a medal began to crystallize, which moments before had seemed unlikely. He passed Kenyans Mike Boit and Robert Ouko down the stretch, then Yevgeniy Arzhanov, the pre-race favorite from the Soviet Union, suddenly began to fade with meters to go.

Head to head at the finish line, an exhausted Arzhanov collapsed to the ground while Wottle raised his arms in anticipation of victory.

“It was almost like a 100-meter sprint to the finish line — it was so close,” says Wottle.

“As a runner, you have this peripheral vision. Arzhanov fell right over the finish line…he went straight down. I didn’t feel him next to me, so crossing the line felt like I’d won it.”

The 800m final at the Munich Olympics is still considered one of the greatest and most exciting track races of all time, begging the simple question of how someone who was so far behind at the start of the race ended up winning gold.

Wattle’s comeback inspires to this day. Grainy footage of the race is regularly shared on social media, receiving millions of views and thousands of comments praising his never-say-the-performance.

Just 0.03 seconds separated Wottle and Arzhanov, unbeaten in the 800m for four years prior to the race, while Boit finished third, 0.15 seconds back.

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the race, and while time has warped Wottle’s visual memories of how it unfolded, the rollercoaster ride of sensations he felt at the time endured.

“Right after the Olympics, I saw the race with my own eyes for a few years – what I saw in the race,” he says. “I’ve watched this video so many times over the years that I seem to see the race through the eye of the camera. It’s a different perspective.

“I kind of forgot what I saw in the race, with the runners in front of me and coming towards me. I kind of miss that…but I know the feelings I had at every stage of the race.

“It was just a constant change of feelings during the two rounds.”

Disrupted preparation

To understand why Wottle was so far behind early in the 800m final, you have to go back to the US Olympic trials and the weeks leading up to the race.

Primarily a mile runner, his coach persuaded him to run the 800m on the trials, “a kind of speed training for the 1,500m”. He ended up setting the world record – “a shock to me as much as everyone else,” says Wottle – and qualified for both events at the Munich Olympics after improving his 800-meter best time by three seconds .

Wottle watches an athletics meeting at Crystal Palace, London in September 1972.

Shortly after the trials, he married his wife, Jan, and the couple embarked on a brief honeymoon in Ohio — a decision that would infuriate US team coach Bill Bowerman.

“He’s been really, really public about his disgust and my marriage,” says Wottle. “He had a great quote: ‘Wottle gave up a gold medal to take a wife,’ something like that.”

Eager to show Bowerman that his marriage and honeymoon hadn’t hampered his preparation for the Olympics, Wottle began training as soon as he returned to the US team.

“I went out and did a very difficult workout and I didn’t warm up properly,” he says. “All of a sudden my left knee, my meniscus on my left knee flared up.

“My mileage went from about 70-80 miles a week — which I should have been running at the time — to nothing… I was only able to get my mileage up to about 15-20 miles a week before the Olympics week.”

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The reduced training load meant Wottle arrived in Munich unsure of how he would fare.

“I had all sorts of doubts that crept into my head because I knew I was losing condition and I knew I didn’t have the get up and go – the kind of spark I had in the Olympic trials ‘ he explains.

“It would reach into the back of my head and say, ‘Do you really have what it takes to get a gold medal?'”

The knee problems, the doubts that plagued him and his penchant for racing over 1,500m all contributed to Wottle’s slow start in the 800m final as well as the semifinals the day before.

“I never felt like I could keep up with half a kilometer,” he says. “I liked the 1,500 meters better because it suited my style better.

“All that lagging behind, a lot of it is a little bit because I didn’t have the speed that these guys needed to step up. What I had was the ability to maintain my speed over a period of time. I could take a certain tempo and just be consistent with that tempo.

While the rest of the field got off to a fast start in the finale, Wottle’s pace remained constant.

“My first 200m time was almost identical to my last 200m time: I went out at 25.9 (seconds) and came in at 26,” he says.

“It was just such a maintenance thing. Both of my 400 meters were almost exactly the same level – my second 200 meters were the same as my third 200 meters.”

Wottle (left) drives behind US' Jim Ryun (centre) at Crystal Palace, London.

From “biggest thrill” to “biggest disappointment”

The aftermath of Wattle’s performance proved eventful.

He was complimented by Roger Bannister – one of his running heroes and the first man to run a four-minute mile – but fought for approval from Bowerman, who said nothing to Wottle afterwards.

And that wasn’t the only unpleasant reception he received. During the medal ceremony, he forgot to take off his white golf cap – a piece of clothing he’d become accustomed to wearing over the past year – and was asked after stepping off the podium what he was protesting about.

He had to apologize and explain that he wasn’t protesting anything.

“I wore it in the winners’ stand during our national anthem, which is a big no-no in the United States,” says Wottle, “and I just forgot I was wearing it. It’s like a man’s wallet — you put your wallet in your back pocket, and you don’t even know it’s there.”

A week later – and just days after the terrorist attack that rocked the Games and claimed the lives of 11 Israeli athletes – Wottle was again racing in Munich, returning to the track for the 1,500m.

But there was no repeat of his exploits in the 800m final. After misjudging his kick in the semifinals, he finished a fraction outside qualifying time and was eliminated from the competition.

“I went from one of my biggest thrills in my running career to one of my biggest disappointments because I really wanted to be in the final of that 1500m. I had the feeling that I could achieve something there,” says Wottle.

“I got cocky. It was a tactical mistake and I paid the price…I’m not saying it haunts me, but it’s one of those ‘what ifs’.”

Wottle is preparing to compete in the 1,500m at the Munich Olympics.

In the broader picture of his running career, Wottle ranks Olympic gold tied with his first sub-four-minute mile – an outstanding achievement for any male middle-distance runner at the time – and equaled the 1972 800m world record.

He retired from running in 1974 before becoming a coach and academic administrator—most recently as Dean of Admissions at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, until 2012.

His iconic golf hat is safely housed in the Track & Field Hall of Fame and his gold medal is safely locked away at home.

“I’m too old to win another one, so I better save it now,” jokes Wottle. But when the opportunity arises, he’s happy to show it to guests, rekindling memories of his famous, unlikely victory.

“I say to people, ‘Why would you ever get tired of talking to someone about such an amazing experience?'” says Wottle.

“It was really a wonderful experience.”