Thirty seconds into the men’s 800m final at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, the American runner Dave Wottle is so far off the pace the ABC co-commentator wonders if something is up. The director switches from a wide shot to a camera aimed purely at Wottle. There are yards of empty track in front of him; no rival is in sight. Concern is registered. “It’ll be a few more hundred yards before we know if Dave is seriously injured or really just lagging back to stay out of trouble.”
It’s easy to spot him and not just because he’s detached from the field. Wottle is running in a golf cap, originally to keep his ginger curls in check but worn now out of superstition. This is Napoleon Dynamite, not your typical American track hunk.
Wottle’s presence among these elite athletes is incongruous. It’s as if a Silicon Valley nerd has designed a computer sim of himself and entered it into an Olympic final. And, with geek detail, he’s put himself up against an authentic assortment of middle-distance rivals. So there’s a crack Soviet, two loping Kenyans, a hometown West German veteran and a have-a-go Brit called Andy Carter. An East German and a Pole provide further Eastern European intrigue.
When the gun fires, it’s all very real though. His seven rivals dash for good early position, leaving Wottle bundling along at a pace out of sync with the field. He’s either a tactical genius or just hasn’t got the legs to go with them. Could he have pulled something in the warm-up?
Coming around the top bend for the first time, Wottle still looks as if he’s misjudged the whole thing and is some way last when taking the bell. Finally, on the back straight, he moves up, picking off the West German Franz-Josef Kemper and Carter. But, as he does so, the gold-medal favourite Evgeni Arzhanov of the Soviet Union accelerates to the front. The Kenyan duo Robert Ouko and Mike Boit explode into action, too. The medals could well have been sorted.
Our hero isn’t done yet. “Stand by for the kick of Dave Wottle,” bellows the main ABC commentator, Jim McKay, as their man bustles past East Germany’s Dieter Fromm and the Pole Andrzej Kupczyk. Wottle is now fourth with the mad sprint to the line in full flow but victory looks far-fetched. “And here he comes. This is the bid for a gold medal of Dave Wottle,” says McKay optimistically with three men to beat and the leader, Arzhanov, seemingly out of sight.
It’s hard to know why this race remains a hidden gem rather than a well-watched classic. The YouTube clip is packed with oddities and McKay sets up the finish perfectly. “He’s got one Kenyan,” he screeches as a charging Wottle edges in front of Ouko. “He’s got the other Kenyan … Can he make it? … I think he did it! … Dave Wottle won the gold medal!” From a distant last, Wottle has burst past Boit and Arzhanov in the dying strides to get his nose in front on the line.
But let’s not be content with the greatest climax to a middle-distance race in Olympic history. In a curious aftermath, McKay delves into Wottle’s unlikely back story. “People said he shouldn’t have got married, it was gonna ruin him.”
There’s even a surprise punchline. After a promise to be back soon, the footage cuts to a rather weedy-looking anchor in the studio. As if recalling all those years ago when, as a 7st weakling, he was beaten up by the high-school quarterback, it seems Wottle’s win has stirred underdog revenge fantasies.
“Dave Wottle winning our first gold medal today, and on behalf of all the skinny guys in America, I’d like to congratulate him,” the anchor says.