The first wave of emotion came almost as soon as the starting gun shot sounded and Wottle watched the other competitors walk away. Within moments, he found himself trailing – and some distance behind.
“It made me doubt, like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m this far behind. Am I in such good shape that I can’t stay with these guys?'”
But what happened during the race is now Olympic folklore.
Step by step Wottle started to gain ground on the other riders and by the end of the first lap he was within easy reach of the peloton.
Relieved, his competitive spirit returned as he directed his eye to those in front of him. He started to pass other runners on the final lap and prepared to throw his kick – what he calls “attack mode” – with 200 yards to go.
Now Wottle’s hopes of a medal – improbable only moments before – have begun to crystallize. He passed Kenyans Mike Boit and Robert Ouko on the home stretch and then Yevgeniy Arzhanov, the Soviet Union’s pre-race favorite, suddenly started to fade with meters to go.
Neck and neck across the finish line, an exhausted Arzhanov collapsed to the ground as Wottle raised his arms in anticipation of victory.
“It was almost like a 100-meter sprint to the finish line – it was so close,” Wottle said.
“As a runner you have this peripheral vision. Arzhanov fell just over the finish line…he went straight down. I didn’t feel him next to me, so when I crossed the line, I kind of felt like I had won.”
The 800m final at the Munich Olympics is still considered one of the greatest and most exciting track races of all time, asking the simple question of how someone so far behind at the start of the race ended up winning gold.
Wottle’s return continues to inspire to this day. Grainy footage of the race is regularly posted on social media, garnering millions of views and thousands of comments praising his endless performance.
Just 0.03 seconds separated Wottle and Arzhanov, who had been unbeaten in the 800m for four years before the race, at the finish line, while Boit was 0.15 seconds in third.
Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the race, and although time has warped Wottle’s visual memories of how it happened, the rollercoaster of thrills he felt back then have endured.
“Right after the Olympics for several years, I was seeing the race with my own eyes – what I saw in the race,” he says. “Over the years I’ve seen this video so much that I feel like I’m seeing the race through the eyes of the camera. It’s a different perspective.
“I kind of forgot what I was seeing during the race, with the riders ahead of me and coming. I kinda miss it…but I know the feelings I had at every stage of the race.
“It was just a constant change of emotions throughout the two rounds.”
To understand why Wottle was so far behind at the start of the 800m final, you have to go back to the US Olympic trials and the weeks leading up to the race.
Primarily a mile runner, his coach persuaded him to run the 800m at trials “kind of like speed training for the 1,500 metres”. He ended up equaling the world record – “a shock to me as much as anyone else”, says Wottle – and qualified for both events at the Munich Olympics after bettering his best time over 800 m of three seconds.
Shortly after the trials, he married his wife, Jan, and the couple embarked on a short honeymoon in Ohio – a decision that reportedly enraged USA team coach Bill Bowerman.
“He was really very public about his disgust and my marriage,” Wottle said. “He had a great quote: ‘Wottle gave up a gold medal to take a wife,’ something like that.”
Eager to show Bowerman that his marriage and honeymoon had had no impact on his Olympic preparation, Wottle threw himself into training upon his return to Team USA.
“I went out and did a really tough workout, and I didn’t warm up properly,” he said. “All of a sudden my left knee, my meniscus on my left knee, got inflamed.
“My mileage was reduced from about 70-80 miles a week – which I should have been running at the time – to nothing…I was only able to increase my mileage before the Olympics to about 15 20 miles a week.”
The reduced training load meant Wottle arrived in Munich unsure of his performance.
“I had all kinds of doubts that crept into my mind because I knew I was losing my fitness and I knew I didn’t have the strength to get up and go — the kind of spark that I had during the Olympic trials,” he explains. .
“It would go to the back of my mind and say, ‘Do you really have what it takes to get a gold medal?'”
The knee problem, doubts playing in his mind and his preference for the 1500m race all contributed to Wottle’s slow start in the 800m final, as well as the semi-final the day before.
“I never felt like I could keep up with the half-mile pace,” he says. “I preferred the 1,500 meters because it was more suited to my style.
“All this stepping back stuff is a lot of it (because) I didn’t have the speed that those guys needed to come up. What I had was the ability to maintain the speed that I had for a longer period of time I could pick up a certain rhythm and be consistent with that rhythm.
While the rest of the field got off to a fast start in the final, Wottle’s pace remained consistent.
“My first 200m time was almost identical to my last 200m time: I went out at 25.9 (seconds) and came in at 26,” he said.
“It was just this maintenance type thing. My two 400 meters were almost exactly the same – my second 200 meters was the same as my third 200 meters.”
From the “greatest thrill” to the “greatest disappointment”
The aftermath of Wottle’s performance proved to be eventful.
And that wasn’t the only awkward reception he received. At the medal ceremony, he forgot to take off his white golf cap – an item he had grown accustomed to wearing over the past year – and was asked after stepping down from the podium what he had protested.
He had to apologize and explain that he was not protesting anything.
“I wore it on the victory stand during our national anthem, which is a big no-no in the United States,” Wottle says, “and I just forgot I had it on. It’s like a man’s wallet – you put your wallet in your back pocket, and you don’t even know it’s there.”
But there was no repeat of his heroism in the 800m final. After misjudging his kick in the semi-finals, he finished a fraction outside of qualifying time and was eliminated from the competition.
“I went from one of my biggest thrills of my running career to one of my biggest disappointments because I really wanted to be in the final of that 1,500m. I felt I could do something there,” Wottle said.
“I got overconfident. It was a tactical mistake, and I paid the price…I’m not saying it haunts me, but it’s one of those ‘what ifs’.”
Within the larger framework of his running career, Wottle ranks Olympic gold on par with his first mile in under four minutes – a remarkable achievement for any male middle-distance runner at the time – and equaling the 800 m world record in 1972.
He retired from running in 1974 before becoming a coach and academic administrator – most recently as dean of admissions at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, until 2012.
His signature golf cap is kept safe in the Athletics Hall of Fame, and he keeps his gold medal safe at home.
“I’m too old to win another one, so I better protect it now,” jokes Wottle. But when the opportunity arises, he is always happy to show it off to guests and relive the memories of his famous and improbable victory.
“I tell people, ‘Why would you get tired of telling someone about such a great experience?'” Wottle says.
“It was truly a wonderful experience.”