Dave Wottle was born in 1950 in Canton, Ohio and took up running in childhood on the advice of his family physician because he was so feeble. At Bowling Green State University, he finished in second place in the mile to Marty Liquori in 1970, and still holds the NCAA outdoor track 1 mile record of 3:57.1, which he set in 1973. (The mile has not been an outdoor track event since 1975.)
His greatest race, though, came shortly after he matched the 800 meter world record at the AAU championship meet leading up to the 1972 Olympic Games. He had gone into the games with recent time off due to knee injuries, and Bill Bowerman claimed that he didn’t have enough focus after he got married shortly before the Olympics.
I wish I’d been alive to see this race live. No matter how many times I watch it, I still don’t think that he’s going to win. He ran a very even 26 point for each of his 200 meter splits, but was dropped way off the back of the pack within the first 100 meters of the race and was still in last place at 500 meters.
Watch the race below and see for yourself:
The Olympic Games have showcased a lot of amazing races and feats over the past century, but this is one of my favorite races. Even with 100 meters to go, you can’t help but think that there’s no way he’s going to win, and he’d be lucky to medal. With 50 meters to go, you know he’s going to medal but there’s still no way Dave can win this race. With 20 meters to go, you can see the others at the front of the pack are fading, but still, how can he possibly win?
At the finish line, he had a 0.03 second lead. Amazing.
Things just broke perfectly for him, despite the (potential) mistakes that he made throughout the race. For example, it’s tough to win a race when you are running so far behind the field. He’s also lucky that he wasn’t boxed in after he passed on the inside with 300 meters to go, and was able to move to the outside to continue passing his competitors. He was also lucky to have so much more gas left in the final 100 meters despite passing towards the outside on the turn, although a lot of that comes from his even splits and being able to maintain his momentum after not going out as fast as everybody else did.
There was a little controversy later when he was awarded his gold medal. Dave used to wear that golf cap to hold back his long hair early in his running career, but once he cut his hair he kept wearing it as it had become a part of his running identity.
Unfortunately, he forgot to take it off while the national anthem was being played, which many took to be some form of protest. Of course, it was just because he was still in shock that he’d won and he just forgot to remove it, for which he later apologized.
What is your favorite race of all time, and is it better than Dave Wottle’s performance in 1972?