Dave Wottle, standing on the track at Rhodes College in Memphis, wears the gold medal he won in the 800 meters at the 1972 Olympics.
Courtesty of Bowling Green State University
BOWLING GREEN -- Dave Wottle used to remember every step of the race that changed his life.
He could watch the ABC broadcast, place himself back in lane 3 of Munich's Olympic Stadium and tell you what the lanky 21-year-old ROTC student with the white painter's cap was thinking that September day at the 1972 Olympics.
"I could see the race through my eyes," said Wottle, a Bowling Green State University graduate.
But over the years, as he played the clip of his 800-meter title in hundreds of school gymnasiums and Rotary Clubs, his perspective shifted. The race no longer seemed entirely real.
No way he had a chance. Wottle, the 1500 NCAA champion who entered the 800 at the Olympic trials only as a speed workout for his signature event, fell out of the picture. Really. He was 10 yards behind the next-to-last runner after 200 meters, so far out of contention that he disappeared from the television screen. The announcer wondered if Wottle was "seriously injured."
The video does not get old because the outcome never feels assured.
"Now I see the race through the camera's eyes," he said.
Four decades later, Wottle's gold-medal finishing kick to overtake the favored Soviet Evgeni Arzhanov by less than the bill of his cap remains one of the indelible moments in U.S. Olympic history.
At a Games overshadowed by the terrorist attack remembered as the Munich Massacre, Wottle, now 61 and recently retired as the dean of admissions at Rhodes College in Memphis, provided a feel-good note that defied all convention.
Wottle was written off by U.S. coaches after he got married weeks before the Olympics, competed in an unfamiliar event -- "Heck, I wouldn't run the 800 at Munich even if I made it," he told Sports Illustrated before the trials -- and began the bell lap in last place.
Forgive him if he was too stunned to take off his hat on the medal stand during the national anthem, a move many thought was a sign of protest but in truth mortified the unassuming introvert.
One recent night, he told Jan, his wife of 39 years, I have a hard time believing I was ever able to do it."
Though exceedingly modest, that is why he gladly accepts the continuing requests from schools and businesses and clubs to share his experience. It is simply a great story.
"Why would you ever get tired of talking about such a wonderful thing?" Wottle said in a phone interview from his Memphis home.
A soaring Falcon
Start in Bowling Green, where the 139-pound Canton native became one of the nation's top amateur distance runners. Wottle was a natural. Though he viewed training as a chore -- he stays fit these days with church-league basketball instead of running -- his Falcons teammates, including All-American Sid Sink, provided the necessary push.
Wottle finished second in the 1500 at the NCAA Championships as a freshman in 1970 and captured the title in 1972. The next year, he won the mile in an NCAA-record 3 minutes, 57.1 seconds.
As the Munich Games approached, he lasered his focus on the 1500. He enrolled in the 800 at the trials only after a nudge from BGSU coach Mel Brodt, who suggested Wottle use the two-lap race for speed work.
"I'm just getting myself ready for the 1500," Wottle told SI. "I'm no half-miler. I run stupid races. I don't have any idea what I'm doing. I don't have the quarter speed to go with those guys in Europe. Can't a guy just have some fun?"
Then, history intervened.
Wottle won the 800 at the trials in Eugene, Ore., leading Sink to dash onto the track, pointing at the scoreboard. His time of 1:44.3 matched a world record.
The kid from BGSU suddenly vaulted atop the track and field world, though his honeymoon lasted until, well, his honeymoon. Against the wishes of U.S. coach Bill Bowerman, a charter member of the old school, Wottle planned to get married between the trials and the Olympics in September. He didn't have the guts to tell Jan all of her planning for the July 15 wedding was for naught.
"Dave Wottle is having a nice honeymoon, but he'll be lucky to get past the first round of the 800 meters," Bowerman told the Eugene Register-Guard before the Olympics. "I don't want anybody to get the idea that I'm a prude. I'm as interested in sex as anybody. But the most important thing we're doing here is competing in the Olympic Games."
Star in chaotic Games
Bowerman's worry foreshadowed a Games defined by turmoil and distraction.
Wottle remembers awaking to a loud noise early the morning of Sept. 5 in the Olympic Village. "It was like a car backing up," he said. "Pop, pop." He learned that morning of the ongoing standoff with the Palestinian group Black September, which took hostage and later killed 11 members of the Israeli team.
U.S. track officials also remembered the Games for its share of embarrassments. Sprinters Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson, co-world-record-holders in the 100, were eliminated because they had an outdated schedule and missed the race. Bob Seagren's gold-medal hopes in the pole vault were dashed when his pole was deemed illegal. And two runners, Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, were banned from the Olympics for life after ignoring the American flag in a show of protest on the medal stand after the 400.
But as an SI headline blared, the nation was "Saved By a Very Fast Wottle."
Wottle advanced to the 800 final, though a training regimen recently limited by tendonitis in his knees appeared to catch up with him. He plummeted to the back of the eight-man field -- and then some. While Wottle was known for lagging behind before making a late charge, this was different.
"You never go into a race like that saying you're going to give these guys 10 yards and reel them in at the end," said Wottle, who did not make the 1500 finals. "Not a good race strategy. Even in my other races, I'd be behind, but I'd be in contact with the back of the pack."
Wottle made up ground on the second lap, but he still had four runners to pass as late as the final turn. As Sink watched the race on tape delay from home, he wondered if he had heard the result correctly.
"I couldn't believe coming off the turn that he was going to win it," Sink said.
Wottle, though, maintained his pace -- he ran virtually even splits -- and the field receded. ABC announcer Jim McKay, his voice rising, called the final 75 meters in near-disbelief: "He's got one Kenyan. … He's got the other Kenyan. … Can he make it? … I think he did it! … Dave Wottle won the gold medal! … The man who came out of nowhere at the U.S. Olympic Trials."
Wottle was euphoric, stunned and, finally, rocked.
The first question in the postrace news conference? What were you protesting by keeping your hat on during the medal ceremony and anthem?
"Here I am, a ROTC student thinking, 'By God.' It just hit me like a ton of bricks," Wottle said. "I remember getting teary-eyed and was very apologetic. I didn't know I had my hat on. It hit me so much when I walked out of that interview."
Wottle still has the Western Union telegrams that soon arrived from President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew.
"Hats on or off, you're the type of American I respect," Agnew wrote.
Wottle, who retired from running three years later, likes to tell people the hat beat him into the U.S. Track & Field Hall of Fame by five years. Traditionally a slow starter, Wottle was inducted in 1977.
"It's all still amazing to me," he said.
Contact David Briggs at email@example.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.