Frank Shorter's Gold Medal Legacy

Frank Shorter in the 1972 Olympic MarathonHis lean, fit frame cut a sharp outline against the brown slat walls as he spoke. His voice was even, candid, matter-of-fact. It was the voice of a man who had run on the world’s biggest stages with the sport’s biggest names. Of a man who, during the height of his career, averaged 17 miles a day, every day, for a decade, chalking off over 60,000 miles in ten years. It was the voice of a man who single-handedly sparked the national running boom of the 1970s, forever changing the face of American distance sport. For a few precious minutes, he offered a glimpse into one of the most storied running careers in history. And what a career it was.

In 1972, Frank Shorter became the first—and, to this day, remains the only—American to win gold in the Olympic marathon. Four years later, he took home the silver medal, besting his previous Olympic time by running 2:10. His revolutionary “surge strategy” of racing marathons—an aggressive race tactic that added brief but intense bursts of speed to an already frenetic pace—garnered the United States’ only medals in the Olympic men’s marathon until 2004, when Meb Kflezighi ran 2:11 for the silver.

But Shorter’s legacy extends beyond the impressive times and Olympic hardware. It has been 40 years since Frank Shorter stood atop the podium at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and his career is inextricably intertwined in the cultural significance of events during and since that time. In addition to playing matchmaker for America and distance running, spearheading the 1970s running boom and the country’s subsequent love affair with the sport, Shorter had a backstage pass to some of the most tragic and controversial events of his era.

He recounts being awakened by gunshots on the morning of September 5, 1972, the beginning of the Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games, when 11 Israeli Olympic athletes and coaches were murdered. Standing on the porch outside his room, he looked across the courtyard of the Athletes’ Village and saw a hooded terrorist brandishing an Uzi. He remembers standing in his room watching the television reports while Steve Prefontaine, who spoke German, translated the information into English for the rest of his teammates. It was Pre who informed them of the situation—several members of the Israeli Olympic team had been killed and more were being held hostage by Palestinian terrorists, literally feet from where the American runners were watching the news. All athletes were ordered to stay in the village. But Prefontaine, Shorter, and a few others ignored the injunction. Braving the wrath of police guards toting submachine guns, the small group of runners climbed over the security fence, left the Athlete’s Village, and ran.

The 1976 Olympics also served as a watershed in professional sports, after Waldemar Cierpinski, representing East Germany and their notorious state-sponsored doping system, took the gold in the 1976 Olympic marathon. Cierpinski crossed the finish line just 50 seconds ahead of Shorter, robbing him of what should have been his second gold medal. With the rise of performance enhancing drugs and with the integrity of the sport on the line, Shorter played an integral role in the foundation of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, serving as the organization’s first chairman of the board.

And then there was Steve Prefontaine. Shorter tells of training with and racing against Pre, their many miles together solidifying their rivalry as much as they cemented their friendship. He suffered through workouts with Pre. He competed with him for the American 5K record. And, on a fateful night in May of 1975, after a track meet at Hayward Field and post-meet party, he hitched a ride home with him, hopping out of the car and heading inside as Pre sped off into the night. Minutes later, Steve Prefontaine flipped his MGB convertible and was killed. Shorter was the last one to see Pre before he died.

To listen to Frank Shorter is to listen to history.

While there are myriad lessons nestled in his concentrated narratives, he is first and foremost a runner, and he speaks of the miles with understated experience and brevity. In honor of the Olympics and the 40th anniversary of Frank Shorter’s gold medal, we have included 5 running tips from one of the greatest running legends of all time.

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