The Day that Ignited “Running Boom”

Sept. 10, 2021 — Forty nine years ago today, September 10th, 1972, it was the last day of the 20th Olympiad in Munich. Many of the finals of Track & Field events were contested, including men’s 1,500m and 5,000m where Finland’s Pekka Vasala and Lasse Viren claimed the gold medals, solidifying the influence of Arthur Lydiard as Finland’s national coach earlier. As the Olympic tradition, the marathon was also run. Incidentally, 12 years earlier on the same day, 1960 Rome Olympic Games marathon was contested where the unknown soldier from Ethiopia by the name of Abebe Bikila won the gold medal in 2:15:16, then the world best marathon time, running over Rome’s cobble-stone streets barefoot. Lydiard’s protege, Barry Magee won the bronze medal (read my blog on this HERE). Abebe would improve this time to 2:12:11 four years later in Tokyo, another world best marathon time. Munich Games was the first time the Olympic marathon was televised in the entirety in the US and around the world. American’s attention span wouldn’t last longer than 4 minutes! They wouldn’t be interested in this sweaty freak-show of running 26-miles, 42km!! Besides, Americans are not endurance people; they are into sprinting and field events…the only time they get patient is in the last 5-minutes (on clock) of a football game!! ;o) Besides, the last time American won the Olympic marathon was in 1908 by Johnny Hayes when Italia’s Dorando Pietri got disqualified. 1964 Games where US runners won both 5,000m and 10,000m was just a fluke….

By 1972, the world best marathon time is down to 2:08:33 by Australia’s Derek Clayton who is in the field of Munich Games marathon. The second man to break 2:10 for the marathon in history, England’s Ron Hill, is also in the field and is one of the favorites. Defending Olympic champion, Ethiopia’s Mamo Walde is also competing but he is 36-years-old and considered too old to be a factor…. Marathon-crazy Japan’s hope was on the shoulders of Akio Usami who, 2 years earlier, won the unofficial world marathon championships, Fukuoka Marathon, in 1970 in the national record of 2:10:38. He also won Pre-Olympic Games marathon in 1971 over the same course. Japan had won the bronze medal for the marathon in 1964 Tokyo Games (Kokichi Tsuburaya), followed by the silver medal in 1964 in Mexico City (Kenji Kimihara) and poised for the highest podium. Usami had run 6 marathons between August 1970 until the Games and won 5 of them with one second-place and considered as one the odds-on favorites. Usami’s only defeat was 1971 Fukuoka Marathon won by a young hippy-like skinny runner from USA, Frank Shorter. Shorter was known more as a track and cross-country runner. “We watched him run around Ohori-Park (=Ohbori). But he is primarily a track runner. He runs on his toes (better known today as “forefoot running”) and he wouldn’t last 42km with that form…” Japanese experts would say.

Shorter is a track runner. He ran 10,000m a week earlier and finished 5th behind Lasse Viren’s world record run and set then American record of 27:51. New Zealand’s Barry Magee, trained by Arthur Lydiard, was one of the first runners to go back-and-forth with the marathon and track events — 5/10k as well as even one-mile (Magee was one of four runners who set the 4 X 1-mile relay in 1961 by running 4:07). Then Japan’s Kokichi Tsubuyara was primarily a track runner who, from the advice of far-thinking man, God of Track & Field in Japan, Mikio Oda, brought his speed to the marathon and succeeded — 6th in 10,000m and 3rd in the marathon in 1964. But Shorter really brought the speed of track and cross-country racing to the marathon to the next level. (*Actually, of course, before all of them, there was Emil Zatopek who was a track runner and simply jumped in the marathon and won the gold medal. But Zatopek was simply “exceptional”!!) Traditionally, marathon was a “waiting game”. It was simply a question of “who can endure longest.” Shorter took of, even in the Olympic marathon, by the half way and surged ahead. It was in fact the same “tactic” he employed at the 1971 Fukuoka marathon…and won handily. Same at Munich. As he surged ahead at 15k, the race was over (you can watch the final part of the marathon HERE, although excited Professor Erich Segal was screaming at the imposter, saying: “This used to happen at Boston Marathon!! This happens at bush league marathons…”. C’mon, Professor!! Be nice!!;o)). Shorter’s winning time of 2:12:19 was only 8 seconds slower than Abebe’s Tokyo Olympic winning time in 1964. Says Shorter: “…Even after I was in the stadium and saw that I could have gotten the (Abebe’s) Olympic record by running hard, I didn’t want to do that. I figure that’s bush league…”

As ABC’s coverage showed the lone figure of Shorter simply floating away from the rest of the world best distance runners on the TV screen, a young man in Boston was watching the fellow American winning the Olympic gold medal in the marathon first time in 64 years. He was a young aspiring runner in high school and college, even a teammate of the 1968 Boston marathon champion by the name of Amby Burfoot. But his life wasn’t going too well at the time. He didn’t have a particularly good-paying job and he would soon lose that job as well. He had his motor-bike stolen and now he has no means to get to work. But watching the fellow American winning the Olympic marathon rekindled his “spark” with his love for running. He started jogging to and from his work — about a mile and a half each way. Three years later, this young man was logging up to 170-miles a week! On the Patriot Day in the spring of 1975, he wore light blue T-shirts with “BOSTON GBTC (Greater Boston Track Club)” hand-written on it, with a pair of ordinary cotton gardening gloves, wearing new Nike racing shoes, promotional “gift” from Steve “Pre” Prefontaine who heard about this young promising runner in the east coast. He ended up breaking the American marathon record set by Frank Shorter at Fukuoka marathon 3 years earlier with the time of 2:09:55 (watch the short homevideo clip of this race HERE). This young man, Bill Rodgers, would soon be fondly known as “the King of the Roads” and “Boston Billy” and would go on to win Boston Marathon 3 more times and New York City Marathon 4 times as well as prestigious Fukuoka Marathon as well as marathons in 4 continents all around the world and bettered his own American marathon record down to 2:09:27.

In a way, you could say it was a perfect storm. What was ignited by Frank Shorter — Running Boom — was now carried on to the mass by Bill Rodgers. Where Shorter was more of an elite, having won 3-/6-miles at NCAA championships as a Yale athlete. Rodgers had a different background. He started out as a runner who started out in some local road races — just like your or me (though he DID run for high school and college as well). “A guy next door” someone called him. Bill Bowerman brought the concept of “jogging” from New Zealand in 1963 and now ordinary people learnt to slip on “sneakers” and “went for a jog” in the 1960s. Then Shorter showed that Americans can be good at long distance events!! But now Rodgers really filled the gap. He is extremely friendly and personable. He can relate to any runner. All these collided as a perfect storm and, by 1980, literally millions of people were hitting the roads. Whether Shorter wants to admit or not, his convincing victory at Munich Olympics marathon 49-years ago today ignited the “Running Boom” of the 1970s and 80s and decades to follow. As for me, it was Shorter’s win at Fukuoka Marathon in 1972 (his second of 4 wins) that inspired me. But I do remember the Munich Games marathon coverage. That was probably the first marathon I paid serious attention to (I was rooting for Usami). And I do remember September 10th as the special day that ignited “Running Boom”. — Nobby Hashizume