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(CNN) The race may have happened half a century ago, but Dave Wottle can still feel every emotion he experienced that day in Munich — from the dejection of the first 100 meters to the charge of adrenaline when he saw his name flash up on the stadium screen two minutes later.
The first wave of emotion arrived almost as soon as the crack of the starting gun had sounded and Wottle watched the other competitors pull away. Within moments, he found himself trailing — and by some distance.
“I was disheartened,” Wottle tells CNN Sport as he looks back on the 800-meter final at the Munich Olympics. “I was probably a little depressed. I wasn’t able to keep up with them.
“That brought doubts into me, like: ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m so far behind. Am I that far out of shape that I can’t stay up with these guys?'”
But what unfolded over the course of race is now Olympic folklore.
Stride by stride, Wottle began to gain ground on the other runners, and by the end of the first lap was within touching distance of the pack.
Relieved, his competitive drive returned as he trained his eye on those in front of him. He started overtaking other runners on the final lap and prepared to launch his kick — what he calls “attack mode” — with 200 meters to go.
Now, Wottle’s hopes of a medal — improbable just moments before — started to crystallize. He overtook Kenyans Mike Boit and Robert Ouko on the final straight, then Yevgeniy Arzhanov, the pre-race favorite from the Soviet Union, suddenly started to fade with meters to go.
Neck-and-neck at the finish line, an exhausted Arzhanov collapsed to the floor while Wottle raised his arms in anticipation of the victory.
“It was almost like a 100-yard dash at the finish line — it was so close,” says Wottle.
“As a runner, you have that peripheral vision. Arzhanov fell right over the finish line … he went straight down. I didn’t sense him next to me, so when I crossed the line, I kind of felt that I had won.” CNN
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The 800m final at the Munich Olympics is still considered one of the greatest, most thrilling track races of all time, begging the simple question of how someone so far behind at the start of the race ended up winning gold.
Wottle’s comeback continues to inspire to this day. Grainy footage of the race is regularly circulated on social media, garnering millions of views and thousands of comments praising his never-say-die performance.
Just 0.03 seconds separated Wottle and Arzhanov, who had been unbeaten over 800m for four years prior to the race, at the finish line, while Boit was 0.15 seconds back in third.
Friday marks the 50-year anniversary of the race, and although time has skewed Wottle’s visual memories of how it unfolded, the roller coaster of sensations he felt at the time have endured.
“Right after the Olympics for several years, I’d see the race through my own eyes — what I was seeing in the race,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve seen that video so much, I seem to see the race through the camera’s eye. It’s a different perspective.
“I’ve forgotten a little bit of what I was seeing in the race, with the runners ahead of me and coming up. I kind of miss that … but I know the feelings that I was having at each leg of the race.
“It was just a constant change of emotions all the way through the two laps.”
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