It has been almost 40 years since Dave Wottle pulled off a remarkable finish to come from last and win the 800-meter gold medal at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, that were disrupted by the terrorist attack on Israel’s male athletes.
Wottle was last early in the race before somehow overcoming a huge deficit to win at the wire in a race few who saw it will ever forget.
“I do know that it has been 40 years. It seems like a long time, but it doesn’t seem like a long time. I see the Olympic race through the camera eyes more than my eyes any more because it has been so long that I really forget what I was seeing and feeling during the race. I still get the opportunity to talk about the Olympics, so it doesn’t seem like it was that long in that sense,” said Wottle, who is working at the Maximum Velocity Track & Field Academy at Centre College this week.
Wottle, 61, says he had no idea he would win the race “until the finish line because it was not pre-planned to get 10 meters behind so early in the race.
However, he says the combination of him having tendinitis before the Olympics that limited his training and the fast early pace of the race put him “in a hole right out of the start” that he didn’t know he could overcome.
“Bottom line, it worked out well because they slowed down at the end and I simply maintained the same pace. They were coming back to me rather than me kicking and it went right down to the wire. That was closest finish in Olympic 800 history,” Wottle said.
“I tied the world record in the Olympic Trials (1:44.3) going in, but I was inexperienced. I was injured all of the 1971 season.¿I did not have much international experience. I was picked to be sixth in the race, which was a great place to be in.¿If you have the fastest time and know you can run a fast time but they don’t think you can be a medalist, it is a nice position psychologically to be in.”
Wottle was last after 500 meters before starting his move to the front and won the race by just 0.03 seconds.
His win was memorable for another reason — he forgot to take off his signature golf hat during the awards ceremony.
He says he didn’t wear the golf hat while running because he was superstitious.
“I came down with three injuries in the 1971 season and was out eight months. I started training in the hot, humid weather up in Ohio in 1971 and I started wearing this golf hat I got officiating track meets at Bowling Green where I went to school. I¿just started wearing it as a sun visor, sweat band, kept the hair out of my eyes,” Wottle said. “Ironically, I didn’t wear it during cross country or indoor season. I started wearing it in outdoor 1972 and after the Olympics no one knew who I was without the hat.”
So what happened at the medal ceremony when he wore the hat during the national anthem?
“I tell people it is like a wallet and you don’t even know you have it there.¿I didn’t even know I¿had it on. After the medal ceremony we went to the press conference and the first question they asked me — and this was aftermath of the Tommy Smith and John Carlos fist pumps during awards ceremony in the 1968 Olympics — was what were you protesting when you left your hat on during the national anthem and covered the USA patch,” Wottle said.
“That’s when it first hit me I¿had left it on. I was an Air Force ROTC student and I thought the president was going to put me in prison or something.¿I was pretty embarrassed by the whole thing.”
Later, the hat may have saved his life. He was scheduled to compete in the 1,500-meter run, but the Olympics were delayed after the hostages were taken. Wottle went for a run outside the Olympic Village and came back through an unconventional entrance. He kept running when a German solider told him to stop and when told again, he looked back to see the soldiers pointing machine guns at him before one said, “That’s Wottle.” He said they recognized him because of his hat and that’s why they didn’t shoot.
He turned pro after the Olympics because he knew he likely would not keep running until the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
“My pro track career was short lived. I ran in 1974-75 and left track in January of 1976,” Wottle, who recently retired as Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Rhodes College in Memphis, said. “Back then you had to make a choice, so as soon as I made my decision to turn pro it meant I could never compete in the Olympics again. In the late 1970’s is when they allowed athletes to put money in escrow and keep their amateur status.¿I was kind of in that transitional period where you had to decide one or the other and I went pro.
“I was coaching at a local school in Ohio (Walsh College) while training for pro track. When I decided to leave they created a position in admissions and coaching. I eventually went to another school (Bethany College in West Virginia) and then went to Rhodes for 29 years.”
Even though he’s running with participants at camp this week, Wottle no longer is a runner.
“I¿run up and down a basketball court and I like playing basketball. That’s the way I get my exercise. I have not run for years,” Wottle said. “Training for me was a necessary evil.¿I didn’t like the training but I loved the competition. I¿knew I¿had to train hard to compete well. Once I¿had the opportunity to move away from the training,¿I did.
“I have lower back and knee problems now, but I love playing basketball with a group at my church. I didn’t have any desire to run age group track meets as there would be some expectation by others that I should race fast and win. That’s why I like basketball so much as I don’t have to prove anything.”
It wasn’t that way when he once tried playing football in middle school. His grandfather played football with legendary Jim Thorpe with the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs, a semipro team.
“I used to run by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton and my grandfather had his name listed there for playing with Jim Thorpe,” Wottle said. “My grandfather would talk about having (Thorpe) over to dinner, so they were teammates.
“My grandfather loved football and thought track was a sissy sport where you wore these short pants and ran around in circles. He just couldn’t relate to it but probably no one jumped out of his chair higher than my grandfather when he was watching the Olympic race. I remember flying back into Canton after the Olympics and my grandfather was the first one to welcome me back. He was very proud, but never quite understood track. Football was his sport.
“I played football in the eighth grade and it didn’t last very long.¿I went into that line a couple of times and got crushed and I decided to go baseball, basketball, track and then it became just track.”
Wottle has spend the last two days explaining that love of track to youngsters who came to Centre to draw on his expertise.
“I talk to them about training regimens and the importance of proper warm up and warm down. They have had questions about race situations and tactics. We cover the full gamut of things,” Wottle said.
Including his dramatic Olympic win.
“I look back at that Olympic race as being beyond me.¿I still have a hard time believing I ran that fast in that environment. It was a special time in my life and getting a chance to talk about it and relive it is still very special for me. You never tire of that,” Wottle said.