The decathlon of 1972 was associated with tragedy. It was the event that reopened the Olympic Games after the postponement to mourn the murders of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, and so it carried a sombre responsibility. The world had been shocked by the deaths; now it wanted solace through this, perhaps the toughest of all Olympic competitions.
The intention was to honour the dead and to show that terror could not overcome the Olympic spirit. And so it was proven, as the decathlon lived up to its billing and produced a memorable contest with an outstanding central performance.
In sport, while you can train for years, or boast remarkable natural talent, sometimes you have to rely on the whims of fate in the effort to win gold.
A classic contest had been shaping up between a crop of decathletes. It was very hard to know which of them would prevail, from the European Champion Joachim Kirst, the American Jeff Bannister or perhaps the Pole Ryszard Skowronek.
In the end the decision turned on a chaotic high hurdles heat, which featured many of the front-runners. First, Kirst hit a hurdle, fell and pulled a muscle. Next, Jeff Bannister, in the next lane, was thrown off stride, hit a hurdle, pushed the next one over, and was disqualified.Meanwhile,
Tadeusz Janczenko, a Pole, was completely distracted by the tumbling competitors and found himself having to hurdle Bannister, slowing down so much his medal chance went. But Mykola Avilov, a Ukrainian competing for the USSR, barely noticed the fuss, finishing in a time of 14.31secs, the fastest time of any athlete. Skowronek had avoided the hurdles after being drawn into the next heat, but then pulled a muscle and had to withdraw.
With his closest rivals all falling out of contention, Avilov suddently found himself with a big lead that he was destined never to relinquish. He set a personal best in eight out of the ten event and set a new world record in the process. As for the silver, it went to another Ukrainian, Leonid Lytvynenko, whose closing 1500m was so fast that he jumped from eighth place to second.