Morales, photographed shortly before her death in Guatemala City, 2004.
Gold Medal, Hammer Throw
At age 57, Annika Morales was the oldest Olympian in history when she came to the ‘72 Games in Munich. The Swedish-born hammer thrower had become a Guatemalan citizen in early childhood (her parents were hemp farmers who met at a convention in Stockholm), and was her country’s first Olympic representative since Enrico Chavez disgraced himself at the 1920 games in Antwerp by installing a rudimentary pogo stick at the end of his pole vault. (The device malfunctioned and propelled him backward for a jump of -27 feet, a record for futility that stands to this day.)
But despite her status as Guatemala’s lone athlete, the sexist Central American policies of the time dictated that Morales couldn’t carry the national flag in the opening ceremonies. Instead, the Guatemalan ambassador to Germany had the honor, while Morales was permitted to march ten feet behind and wave a smaller white flag bearing the words “Viva Guatemala!”
Morales attracted a good deal of interest from the media because of her age and background (she first threw hammers to chase off hemp poachers at the family farm), but was still considered a huge underdog against hammer throw titans like England’s Sylvia Goodworth and German two-time gold medalist Helga Kelmut. In the opening round on September 4, Morales’ first throw was 40 feet shorter than Kelmut’s, and she only qualified for the finals due to a rash of foot faults stemming from the famously muddy Munich terrain. That’s when the Guatemalan experienced a tremendous stroke of luck; on the morning of September 5, the day of the hammer throw finals, members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took nine Israelis hostage at the Olympic Village, demanding the release of prisoners held in Israel. When the news broke, all events were canceled for the day.
All but one, that is. Dieter Bachmeier, acting head of the German hammer throw committee, felt that his event was perceived as the black sheep of the track and field world. Seeing an opportunity to showcase the sport on an otherwise empty stage, he used his significant political clout to ensure that the finals would go on as scheduled. Unfortunately, the other finalists assumed that the event was canceled and never received the announcement to the contrary from Olympic officials. Only Morales, who was staying outside the Olympic Village and had remained ignorant of the hostage situation, showed up at Olympic Stadium on time. Under the watchful eyes of Bachmeier, who would resign in disgrace a day later, she threw the hammer 26 meters on each of her three rounds.
After a botched rescue attempt by German counter-terrorist forces, the Israeli hostages were killed that night at Furstenfeldbruck military airport. But Annika Morales, who would live in Guatemala City as a revered celebrity until her death in 2004, had won a famous gold medal.