Shorter, Frank (1947—)

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Shorter, Frank (1947—)

Often credited with having spurred the running boom of the 1970s, Frank Shorter was one of America's greatest Olympic performers. He is best remembered for his victory in the marathon during the ill-starred games in Munich in 1972, and for his runner-up finish four years later in Montreal. The Munich games were marred by the terrorism meted out against Israeli athletes, but they are also recalled for swimmer Mark Spitz's unprecedented seven gold medals and Shorter's long-distance triumph. On the day of the marathon, September 10, 1972, Runner's World later contended, "distance running was changed forever … transformed from the cult exercise of an eccentric breed of skinny men into what would become for many a way of life." An international television audience watched as the tousle-haired Shorter, born in Munich in 1947—his father was an American army physician stationed in Germany after the war—and a graduate of Yale University, held the lead from the fifteen-kilometer marker. Days earlier, Shorter had finished fifth in the 10,000 meters race. On entering the stadium near the close of the marathon, he was stunned to encounter jeering and booing, which was intended for a prankster who had landed on the track a short while earlier. Shorter went on to best the Belgian Karel Lismont, who had never lost a marathon previously. "Five seconds beyond the finish line it hit me what I'd done," Shorter, who often ran 140 miles a week, remembered. "I don't have to do it again for a while." The marathon, he reasoned, "is a battle against slowing down."

Four years later in Montreal, Shorter, by then a graduate of the University of Florida School of Law and an associate with French & Stone in Boulder, Colorado, was favored to repeat and thereby duplicate the feat of Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila. Shorter however, was defeated by the little-known East German Waldermar Cierpinski, who established an Olympic record. When he passed the front-running Shorter, Cierpinski later reflected, "I looked right into the eyes of the man who was my idol as a marathon runner. I knew all about him. And yet I could tell by the return glance that he didn't know much, if anything, about me. The psychological advantage was mine."

Shorter's Olympic accomplishments followed earlier victories in the 1969 NCAA six-mile run, the 10,000-meter race in the 1970 U.S.-USSR dual meet in Leningrad, the 1970 AAU outdoor three-mile and six-mile events, the 1971 AAU six-mile run, and the 1971 Pan-American Games 10,000-meter race and the marathon. From 1970-1973, he was also the AAU cross-country champion. Shorter eventually won a record four Fukoka marathons. In 1972, he received the Sullivan Award, given annually to the nation's top amateur athlete. But by 1979, serious foot and back injuries sorely hampered his track performances.

Shorter is a member of the National Track & Field Hall of Fame and the Olympic Hall of Fame. He has served as a television sports commentator for track-and-field performances and founded Frank Shorter Running Gear, headquartered in Colorado. But among his greatest achievements, Shorter helped to challenge the false separation between amateur and professional track-and-field performers, thus ushering in "a new cooperative climate between athletes, sponsors and federations," according to Runner's World.

Shorter's Olympic feats, including the first victory in the marathon by an American in 64 years, helped to trigger a running boom in the United States. (Instrumental, too, were the early successes and later nearly epochal failures in the 1968 and 1972 Olympic games by world record-holding miler Jim Ryun, Dr. Kenneth Cooper's championing of aerobic conditioning, and James F. Fixx's and Joe Henderson's writings extolling running.) By 1970, two million Americans were jogging regularly, according to a Gallup Poll. Following Shorter's triumph, road racing became more popular in the United States, thanks to favorable media coverage and corporate sponsorships. For a time, under-the-table expense payments were often delivered, as the lines between amateur and professional athletes continued to narrow. By 1980, the United States reportedly boasted 30 million runners, while by 1997, Runner's World suggested, a second running boom was occurring. This one tended to be less competitive, "more individual-and family-centered, more health-and fitness-oriented, more 'set your own goals and choose your own pace."' Frank Shorter's contribution to one of late-twentieth-century America's most ubiquitous fitness crazes renders him a significant figure in U.S. popular culture.

—Robert C. Cottrell

Further Reading:

Bloom, Marc. "Frankly Speaking." Runner's World. Vol. 32, September 1997, 57-58.

——. "Olympic Flashback: Shorter in the Long Run." Runner's World. Vol. 27, February 1992, 20.

——. "The Second Boom." Runner's World. Vol. 32, November1997, 66-72.

Cooper, Pamela. The American Marathon. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1998.

Espy, Richard. The Politics of the Olympic Games. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1979.

Krise, Raymond, and Bill Squires. Fast Tracks: The History of Distance Running. Brattleboro, Vermont, The Stephen Greene Press, 1982.

Lovett, Charlie. Olympic Marathon: A Centennial History of the Games' Most Storied Race. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger, 1997.

Shainberg, Lawrence. "The Obsessiveness of the Long-Distance Runner." New York Times Magazine. February 25, 1973, 28, 30-34.

Shorter, Frank, with Marc Bloom. Olympic Gold: A Runner's Life and Times. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.

Wallechinsky, David. The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics. Boston, Little, Brown, 1996.