Memories · Sport

Olympic memories: Munich 1972, Wottle with the throttle

On this date in 1972 US athlete Dave Wottle won the 800m final at the Munich Olympics. I remember it well. It was the first Olympic year when I knew what was happening. I had been looking forward to the athletics events all summer but we missed some of them. We were on holiday in Ireland and the national broadcaster, RTE, had very little Olympic coverage.

The BBC covered the Games extensively, but at my uncle’s house in Clontarf the reception was patchy. We missed most of the live action during the opening few days (Mark Spitz winning some of his swimming golds, Olga Korbut in the gymnastics) but atmospheric conditions allowed us to pick up the BBC signal the night the athletics began (31 August). We saw the 100m heats, including Valery Borzov from the Soviet Union. He went on to win the sprint double.

By Saturday 2 September we were staying with cousins in Cavan, near the border with Northern Ireland. They could pick up BBC1, BBC2 and UTV (the Ulster version of ITV) with no difficulty. We saw the BBC’s coverage of the 800m live, with David Coleman commentating. “Wottle with the throttle”, as Coleman called him, was in last place for most of the race, and then came through the entire field to overtake Yevhen Arzhanov (USSR) on the line.

Although I wrote above that I remember it well, my memory of the event was faulty in three ways. In my mind Wottle had the upper body of a swimmer, all broad shoulders and well-defined biceps and triceps; his headgear was a baseball cap that reminded me of Captain Scarlet’s helmet, with a peak that jutted out so that his face was half-covered; and he moved out wide to run down the home straight in the 5th or 6th lane. In fact his upper body was not especially well-defined; his headgear was a battered-looking golf cap; and he only ran out into lane 2 to overtake Arzhanov. You can see the whole race, and replays and analysis, on this YouTube clip. The commentators are American. At the end the clip the linkman says, “On behalf of all the skinny guys in America I’d like to congratulate him,” so he was clearly seen as skinny rather than muscular.

Here’s a shorter clip (the race, and not much more), with David Coleman’s commentary. It cuts off before he uses the famous “Wottle with the throttle” line. Or maybe I mis-remembered that bit too.

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