The depressing pall overshadowing the Olympics seemed deepened by the succession of failures experienced by the U.S. The stunning loss in those controversial last seconds in basketball, the defeats in track and field events traditionally American strongholds, the sickening fall of Jim Ryun—all these seemed to build into a picture of total American disaster. But bright spots shone through this miasma: Rod Milburn's strong, driving victory in the 110 meter hurdles in world-record-equaling time; little Randy Williams' sterling 27'½" leap to win the men's long jump; the gratifying success of the 400-meter relay team; the cool, sustained superiority of John Williams in archery; and, above and beyond everything else, the classic, almost serene, victory of Frank Shorter in the marathon, America's first gold medal in this most significant of Olympic events in 64 years.
The night before, Shorter sagged with disappointment as the U.S. lost to Russia in that astonishing basketball game. "The gods really are against us," he said. Earlier, after the Arab terror, the introspective Shorter confessed he suddenly felt a physical fear of running. "I'm scared," he told Kenny Moore. "Do you realize how easily we could get shot out there?" The sight of the obscene clown who cut into the marathon just before the end and trotted into the stadium, a parody winner, a few hundred yards ahead of Shorter, brought sickeningly home the validity of Shorter's fears, the possibility of another insane intrusion into the once gentle backwater of sport.
Still, despite Shorter, the resurgence of the Finns in running, the anticipated flood of medals for East Germany and the overall supremacy of the Soviet juggernaut, failure more than success was the theme of Munich 1972, even in the quiet corners of the stage. The Russians were routed in shooting, and the field hockey players from Pakistan and India, who had won every Olympic gold in that esoteric sport since 1928, finished second and third behind West Germany.
Perhaps the 1972 Olympics were best summed up by the sight of Kip Keino, later to fail himself, comforting Jim Ryun. They were of the old order, when both victory and defeat were somehow splendid. Now both were only sad.
September 17, 1972
Powerful Rod Milburn (third from left), who faltered in the U.S. Trials, came on strongly to win the 110-meter hurdles in world-record time.
Frail, esthetic-looking Frank Shorter (above) finished a fading fifth in the 10,000, but his splendid victory in the marathon helped ease the sting of the frustration of Jim Ryun, here comforted by Kip Keino after falling in his heat in the 1,500. A quiet American who led his field all the way was John Williams (below), gold medal winner in Olympic archery.
Almost overlooked was the achievement of Larry Young (below), who repeated his 1968 Olympic performance by finishing third in the long 50-kilometer walk.
Nikolai Avilov (above) of the Soviet Union set a world record in the grueling decathalon but sagged in pain after the 1,500, final test in the 10-event competition.
Randy Williams (left) captured the long-jump title with a 27'½" leap. One of the youngest U.S. Olympians, Williams carried a toy bear mascot with him to the victory stand.
Bitterest defeat suffered by the U.S. came in basketball. Trailing the Russians by 10 points, the Americans rallied and went ahead by a point with three seconds to play. A chaotic ending, during which the Russians were allowed to put the ball in play three times, resulted in a Soviet victory and an orgy of celebration. After hours of discussion, a protest by U.S. Coach Hank Iba (left) was rejected by an intransigent Olympic jury.
Recalling the glory of Paavo Nurmi, Finland regained Olympian heights with decisive victories by Lasse Viren (above) in the 5,000 and 10,000 and by Pekka Vasala in the 1,500.