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Budd Bailey’s Running: Shorter’s Olympic win put marathoning on the map

Frank Shorter might be the most magical name in American running history when it comes to the marathon.

Shorter’s biggest moment came along at exactly the right time. He won the gold medal in the event in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, and helped to spark the first major running boom in this country. What’s more, ABC television, at the height of its powers and influence, broadcast the race to an eager public back home.

There may be days in his life when Shorter isn’t reminded by someone about that race, but there aren’t many.

“I always acknowledge that it was when Americans were paying attention,” Shorter said. Legendary ABC sports executive “Roone Arledge had decided to focus on the marathon.”

Those who were watching won’t soon forget Shorter’s last lap in the Olympic stadium, with a bandit entering the stadium in front of him. Shorter wasn’t worried that the gold medal would be somehow stolen, but ABC commentator, “Love Story” author, marathon runner and Yale professor Erich Segal was. Segal shouted, “Throw the bum out! … Get rid of that guy!” at the imposter. It’s a definite YouTube moment, even now.

“Well, Erich Segal was biased, since he was one of my professors at Yale,” Shorter said. “He was the most subscribed professor at Yale. He was great. Funding was done by attendance, and he almost personally funded the classics department there.”

When Shorter won, he was the first American to win the marathon since 1908. As you’d expect, Shorter didn’t come to realize what exactly had happened.

“My first reaction was that I did it right. It all worked,” he said. “I made the initiative. I made a surge at 9 miles, ran a 4:33 mile, kept up the pace and got a big lead. I actually trained to do that. I won the race.”

But 42 years later, we’re still talking about Shorter’s win – perhaps because no American has won the race since.

“I never had the sense as the race approached that it would define the rest of my life. It was a goal. That was my attitude,” he said. “It made it easier going in when I thought that there weren’t many people who train for the Olympics and go to law school full-time.

“I always had a hedge. It was a hedge. I was prepared to do something else. I do think about it, and incorporate that and use that for notoriety.”

Running has remained a huge part of Shorter’s life since then. He finished second in the marathon in the 1976 Olympics, the first Games in which drugs are believed to have played a major part in the results. Winner Waldemar Cierpinski of East Germany was later linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Shorter became a member of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, serving as its president from 2000 to 2003.

The American was a pioneer in the area of changing the rules for payment of athletes. He worked to establish trust funds for American athletes, so they could prepare full-time for competitions instead of worrying about finances. That led to direct payments to the athletes in track and field.

Shorter has done some television work over the years. He’s part of the broadcast team on Universal Sports that will be broadcasting the Boston Marathon on April 21. I’ll have more on that in this space in two weeks.

At 67, Shorter is still giving something back to the sport of road racing. In hindsight, he was part of a great wave of American runners, a list that included Bill Rodgers, Amby Burfoot, Kenny Moore and the late Steve Prefontaine. It’s striking today just how thoughtful and articulate that group was and is.

“The interesting thing about that group is that we all appreciated and admired each other’s performances,” Shorter said. “The agents came in later, with endorsements and medical people. We were sole practitioners, a phrase I just thought of. It attracted that sort of person. We all worked and trained together. Steve Prefontaine and I trained together. We raced each other, but every other minute we worked together. It was part of that generation.

“Sure you want to beat people, but we’re talking about history here. That’s why it is so important. Sacred is the wrong word, but the approach is so important. It’s where the whole atmosphere and mentality about marathon running had its source,” he continued.

Race calendar

• Bemus Point 5k, Long Point State Park in Bemus Point, 9 a.m. today, 488-0788.

• Health Fair 5K Run, 1500 Vanderbilt Ave. in North Tonawanda, 9 a.m. Saturday, 807-3715.

• Niagara University 5K Run against Hunger, 5K, Dwyer Arena at Niagara University, 10 a.m. Saturday, 286-8711.

• Feel the Spirit 5K, 921 Cleveland Drive in Cheektowaga, 11 a.m. Saturday, 380-0231.

• Boys on the Right Track 5K, 5324 Rogers Road in Hamburg, 8 a.m. on April 6, 316-1789.

• Canisius College Shoes for the Shelter 5K (News Runner of the Year Race), Koessler Athletic Center in Buffalo, 10 a.m. on April 6, 888-2977.

• Run Along Jericho Road 5K, 184 Barton St. in Buffalo, 9 a.m. on April 12, 374-3018.

• BPAC 6-Hour Distance Classic, Northtown Center at Amherst, 8 a.m. on April 13.