1976 – Waldemar Cierpinski

Embed from Getty Images

31-Jul-1976 – Montreal Olympics – 2:09:55 – Adidas Marathon
Date of birth: 3-Aug-1950
Nationality: East German (at the time)
Olympic Record Duration: 8 years, 12 days

The athlete:                
Before we start, I’d like to note that the Olympic record was set by Abebe Bikila in 1960 and then beaten by Bikila when he won again in 1964, both performances also having been marathon world records. Waldemar Cierpinski was effectively unknown when he started the marathon at the 1976 Olympics. He previously specialised in the steeplechase and 10,000 metre disciplines. Cierpinski bided his time during the race, staying with 1972 gold medallist Frank Shorter until the 25th kilometre where he took the lead.

Shorter and Cierpinski duelled over the next few kilometres, neither able to get away from the other. At the 23rd mile, Cierpinski accelerated and built his lead to 100 metres. The two athletes eyes met briefly, and Cierpinski powered away. He got confused at the end after crossing the line to win, and proceeded to sprint another lap around the stadium at the same pace he had entered.

Cierpinski would finish in 2:09:55, a new Olympic Record. Such was the pace of the race that Shorter, who finished in 2:10:45, would have also set the new Olympic marathon record. Neither time would be beaten until Carlos Lopes set the new benchmark at the 1984 Olympics.

Cierpinski would go on to win the marathon at the 1980 Olympics in a sprint finish from Gerard Nijboer, and come third at the 1983 World Championships. He would retire in 1984, unable to compete at the 1984 Olympics due to the Soviet-led boycott in response to the American-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics. He would go on to open a chain of sporting goods stores after the Berlin Wall fell.

I’m aware of extremely serious allegations regarding Waldemar Cierpinski that implicate him in the doping program operated by the Former German Democratic Republic. These include documents recovered by researcher Weber Franke in 1998 from the Stasi, the East German secret police, which according to Franke appear to list athletes who were involved in the doping program. Both the Wall Street Journal and ESPN report that Cierpinski is referred to by name in these documents.

At the time, when made aware of the documents, the president of the International Olympic Committee stated that there would be no rewriting of history. It should also be noted that Cierpinski has denied any involvement in the East German doping program. Frank Shorter, who continues to accuse Cierpinski of involvement, went on to found the United States Anti-Doping Agency instead of pursuing the matter further.

It should also be noted that the allegations have not been formally brought to the International Olympics Committee, World Athletics, or any other major sporting body. Accordingly, unlike the bans levied against Alberto Salazar and Wilson Kipsang, there has been no process through which these allegations have been investigated. I have included articles on the matter that provide more background.

The shoes:                   

We have some images, as well as film, of Cierpinski winning gold. These first identify his shoes as Adidas, but from there you can notice the shape of the midsole, and the large heel counter at the rear. The upper had no other overlays except for the Adidas stripes. Finally, the outsole is another tell, being black rubber instead of white or gum like other models.

In short, it was the Adidas Marathon, an obscure but successful entry into the brand’s running history. Little information is available on the technology that underpinned the shoe, other than it used kangaroo suede for the upper and that the midsole cushioning was particularly light and shock absorbent. The focus on lightness can be seen on the inside, with no insole for the heel of the shoe.

To quote Adidas, the Marathon was ideally suited for its suggested purpose. The Marathon also made history with Jacqueline Hansen, who wore them to break the women’s marathon world record in 1974 and 1975. Jack Fultz also wore the model to win the 1976 Boston Marathon. There has not been a retro of these to date, so any pairs you find will be vintage.

Embed from Getty Images

Normally I would not mention the shoes worn by the runner-up, however the story of Frank Shorter’s footwear that day is quite interesting. Sponsored by Nike at the time, he was going to run using specially made prototypes that were made to fit his feet. They used mesh for the upper that Nike had never tried before on its running shoes, making the package extremely lightweight. The shoes Shorter wore had performed well in training runs, but on the day of the race Shorter could not tighten the laces enough.

Looking down, he saw the issue, the upper had partially separated from the midsole and outsole. His back-up racing flats were back in the athlete’s village. There was less than 30 minutes before the start of the marathon. Shorter had another member of the American team sprint back to get his shoes. With less than five minutes to go, the other runners having left the warmup area, the shoes were tossed over the fence to Shorter.

The pictures from that day show the bright yellow uppers and unmistakable Tiger Stripes that Onitsuka Tiger had introduced one decade earlier. The shape of the midsole and overlays at the heel mark them out as the Onitsuka Tiger Ohbori. It was the company’s first running shoe to feature an EVA midsole instead of the rubber used previously.

It meant the midsole was lighter and provided better cushioning compared to the Marathon model that was still extremely popular at the time. ASICS brought back the Ohbori in modified form as the Ohbori Ex in 2020. The main changes are to the outsole, which now extends more at the heel compared with the original design. The Ohbori Ex can still be found brand new for purchase.

My Marathon: Reflections on a Gold Medal Life by Frank Shorter