Updated: Mar 13, 2019

I have always loved watching the Olympic Games and this last week has been no exception. I find myself fascinated by sports in which I would not normally have much interest. Today, I sat glued to the television broadcasts of weightlifting and fencing. However, my interest really peaks in the second half of the Olympic programme, when the athletics begin.

For obvious reasons, the men’s and women’s marathons are my favourite events. Not only because of the world class distance racing on show, but also because of the great history and tradition of the event. I find names like Abebe Bikila, Joanie Benoit, Carlos Lopes and our own Josia Thugwane truly inspirational.

However, perhaps the most important marathon runner of all time - not just for me, but for every runner, jogger and shuffler who ever laced on a pair of running shoes - is Frank Shorter, pictured here with Steve Prefontaine.

The cold facts are that the USA’s Frank Shorter won the 1972 Olympic marathon in Munich. 4 years later he won a silver medal in Montreal. But it was his Munich win 44 years ago that is widely acknowledged to have been so important. Essentially, Frank Shorter is credited with starting the running boom.

Shorter‘s win in the marathon came as a complete surprise to a nation that hardly knew what a marathon was. Then, at an Olympics where the Americans were busy losing at some of their traditionally strong events, Shorter’s win was some compensation. The US surrendered their dominance in the men’s 100 and 200-metre sprints and, to rub salt into their wounds, their sprinters lost to Valery Borzov, a Russian. They lost at the pole vault and, worse than all of those, they lost the basketball in hugely controversial circumstances. Yes, to the Russians. That blow may have been worse than appearing to lose the Cold War!

An unexpected gold medal in this ‘strange’ event called a marathon came as a welcome relief to US sports fans. Afterwards, the fact that Shorter was an articulate law student at Yale helped to propel the event into the minds of ordinary Americans. But nothing promoted the marathon more than the brilliant television commentary of Erich Segal, who had taught Shorter at Yale. (Yes, Erich Segal who wrote “Love Story” and penned the famous words “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”).

Millions of Americans listened to Segal and Jim Mackay’s description of the challenges , the joys and the triumphs of running a marathon. And Segal, a 2:56 marathoner and 20-time finisher of the Boston marathon himself, promoted running as no-one before him had ever done. The rest is now history. Hundreds of Americans started running; then thousands, and then millions. Soon the world followed, and the sight of people running became commonplace. The running boom had arrived.

In South Africa, the craze for running started about 5 years or so after Shorter’s epic win. It also came with a little madness – because, of course, every year we stage this extraordinary event called the Comrades marathon.

Running is here to stay and, personally, is the most important part of almost every day of my life. Often, as I run I say a few words of thanks to Frank Shorter and the Olympic marathon for having such a positive effect on the lives of millions, possibly billions, of people.

Photo of Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter sit in the infield of Hayward Fiels, Eugene, Oregon, waiting for the 5,000m event to begin on 29 May 1975. Taken by Geoff Parks.




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