IN THE TIMES OF SHORTER

1972 Olympic Marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter.

Born October 31, 1947 in Munich, Germany, where his father served as a military physician, Frank Charles Shorter joined the leading edge of what came to be known as the Baby Boom generation, the largest and most pampered cohort in American history. Frank’s great rival, Bill Rodgers, followed on December 23, while your author got Caesarian’d out on January 2, 1948. 

In post-World War II AMERICA, returning vets and their brides were spitting us out like watermelon seeds. We were many, and we were fortunate, growing up in a time of American hegemony and easy abundance as much of the world dug out of the ruins of war.

20 years later, amidst what the French call our l’age ingrat, the thankless age, we came into early adulthood with an attitude, proclaiming, “forget you, Mom and Dad. We don’t want the stultifying banality of your gray-flannel, three-martini society. We’re looking for something different, something more freeing.”

Of course, we never took into consideration how the privations of the Great Depression or the sacrifices of WWII might’ve molded our Greatest Generation parent’s worldview. All we hallowed was what we felt; the first generation afforded that luxury.

So we traded gray-flannel and hard liquor for blue jeans and soft drugs. But besides denim and doobies, another of the cultural artifacts from that era that remain with us today is the sport of running, a self-induced opiate for the masses.  

As a social and cultural phenomenon, running’s impact on American life has been profound. Yet at times we forget how running first emerged on the heels of the Sixties counterculture, a generational revolution that altered the social landscape like nothing before.  

In the annus horribilis of 1968 alone, campus protests against the war in Vietnam, the police riot at the Democratic national convention in Chicago, Black Power, along with the political assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., RFK, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, radicalized the youth generation years before Watergate completely severed their trust in their parents’ institutions. 

In that same year, 1968, with much less fanfare, Dr. Kenneth Cooper published his ground-breaking book Aerobics, touting the health benefits of aerobic exercise.

Cooper’s message was empirically based, but the movement he envisioned required a catalyst. The ideal spark would arrive on September 10, 1972, in Munich, Germany.  

That afternoon, 24-year-old Frank Shorter returned to the city of his birth and won the gold medal in the Olympic Marathon, while millions of Americans watched his excellence live on ABC-TV.

Coming in the wake of the Munich massacre during which 11 Israeli Olympic athletes lost their lives to Black September terrorists just days before, Shorter’s victory in the Olympic Marathon – the first by an American in 64 years – brought to viewers a moment of clarity in an otherwise uncertain world. It also pushed many of us out the door to run for the rest of our lives.

As our lives became more complex, running filled the psychic space and calmed unsettled worries with the requirement of immediate effort.

Today, Frank Shorter celebrates three-quarters of a century of living. Though his stride has diminished, his light has never dimmed. 

Frank’s impact on the sport in America touches upon everything. As an athlete, he won at cross-country, on the track, then roads, and most highly at the marathon. But he was also active in the politics of the sport, as a business owner, an event founder, a broadcaster. In total, he was the functional godfather of the whole damn thing. 

Frank & Bill battling at Bix 7 1981

It was Frank who brought Billy back into play with his win in Munich ‘72. And together they engaged in the rivalry that accelerated the boom. 

It was so sudden. Not there one minute, then a tsunami, the fountain of youth, the slayer of demons, the teller of truths: running. All doubts set aside. This much we know is true. 

Only later did we realize Senator Edward Kennedy was flat out wishful at the 1980 Democratic National Convention when he declared, “The dream shall never die,” in conceding the nomination to President Carter.

We exist, at the moment, in a tectonic time when “The Dream” means different things to different people, when the basic facts and rules required for democratic dialogue are no longer agreed upon, alerting us like the harbinger of a society in dissolution. 

Today, there is only “my truth”, not “our truth”. It’s a delicate balance in a crowded world with stricken resources and growing armies and resentments. 

Communism was never what it purported to be. But neither was capitalism, though it worked at a much deeper level. But it, too, has shown itself susceptible to the corruptions of its human designers. 

When enough people no longer believe the system in place works for them, there’s nothing left to draw them toward that bonding unity that spurred a group of colonies to form into a great nation. Instead, they drift away and look for another form to follow, one that caters to resentment and promises a satisfying solution. And guess who’s lurking right there, as if sent by a wrathful God, one who wants to show us all a lesson in self absorption?

Historic plates are shifting. The American advantage coming out of World War II is all but gone. Where, then, is the new leader? What is the new direction? Who, then, to take up the mantle?

Some are now positing, and it was just a matter of time, that DJT is the new J.C. Well, he might not be all that, but he could well be the Horn of Gabriel, the archangel who blows the horn to announce Judgement Day.

Noted historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., writing in the October/November 1997 edition of Foreign Affairs said, “The computerized world poses problems for democracy. Where the Industrial Revolution created more jobs than it destroyed, the Computer Revolution threatens to destroy more jobs than it creates. It also threatens to erect new and rigid class barriers, especially between the well-educated and the ill-educated.”

A quarter century later, the field for comeuppance has been sown too well. The contempt is real. The satisfaction of bringing down the elites, irreplaceable. How are you going to stop that? With locution? With argument? Argument that only cements the original feelings of distrust? 

In a box, and can’t get out. 

2016 was the fissure becoming real. 2020 was the chance for reassessment and repair. 2022 is more of a reckoning, with enormous societal implications for 2024. The world awaits, with fear and folly riding astride.

Happy birthday, Frank. The times are fraught once again.

END

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