Fame Was a Long Walk Away, and He Made It

The most succinct definition of Professor Shaul Ladany, the world record holder in the 50-mile walk, was made by Tommy Lapid, a few years back when he wrote for Ma'ariv: "He is a survivor. He survived the Holocaust, when he was rescued from Bergen-Belsen by nuns who hid him from the Nazis; he survived the Black September attack in Munich when he slept through the attack at the Olympic Village in which terrorists killed 11 members of the Israeli delegation; and he survived hundreds of tough walking competitions, dozens of kilometers long."

When he wrote about Ladany, Lapid, now justice minister, didn't know that the Be'er Sheva university professor still had another battle for survival ahead of him. In July 2002, Ladany was diagnosed as suffering from lymph cancer and underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments, not that they stopped him from walking. Ladany, who says he feels like Lance Armstrong, still competes, only in a long shirt and trousers so as not to expose himself to the sun.

Professor Shaul Ladany was born on April 2, 1936 in Yugoslavia and came to Israel from Hungary in 1948. At the age of 67, he still travels regularly to participate in competitions and walk hundreds of thousands of kilometers. Ladany is a professor of industrial management and engineering, dealing primarily with quality control and applied statistics.

Ladany's list of sporting achievements is illustrious. In 1972, he won the gold medal in the 100-kilometer walk at the World Championships in Lugano. He also won the Israeli national walking championships 28 times from 1963 to 1988; the U.S. walking championship six times (from 1973-1981); in Belgium twice (1971 and 1972); in Switzerland in 1972, and in South Africa in 1975. In 1976, he became the first person ever to win both the American Open and Masters (40 years and over) 75-kilometer walking championship; he repeated the feat in 1977 and 1981 (by which time the event had become 100-km). He also won the 20-km, and 50-km walk at the 1973 Maccabiah Games.

Shaul Ladany has an obsession with walking. Last summer he spent a few weeks in Germany, working on research and walking. "I would go out every day walking, and I think I must of walked over a thousand kilometers. I spend all my time thinking about mathematical models and since it doesn't matter where I think about them, there's nothing like walking for it."

The height of Ladany's sporting career was his participation in the Olympic Games. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Ladany finished in 24th place in the 50-km walk with a time of 5 hours, 1 minute, and 6 seconds. He then returned to the Olympics at the 1972 Munich Games as Israel's sole male representative in track and field. He again competed in the 50-km walk and improved his time, to finish in 19th place with a time of 4 hours, 24 minutes and 38 seconds.

The morning after his race, Black September terrorists broke into the Olympic Village and 11 members of Israel's athletic team were killed. Ladany escaped unharmed.

The Munich massacre, however, wasn't the only event that marred Ladany's Olympic participation. In an autobiography published in 1997, called "Walking to the Olympics," Ladany describes the frustrations he suffered in trying to represent his country. In the book, Ladany settles accounts with Israel's sporting authorities, calling one of them senile and another a bookkeeper.

Ladany recalls how he was told when he traveled to a pre-Olympic training camp in the United States that he would be given $1,000 toward his expenses, but says he is still waiting for the money.

Even after more than 30 years, Ladany gets red in the face as he recollects how he wasn't given a shirt for the opening ceremony of the Mexico Olympics. "One of the heads of the delegation told me `wear a white shirt, no one will notice.' The ceremony was shown on television all over the world, and I get told to wear a white shirt. For the race itself, I wore a white vest and wrote on it with a ballpoint pen `ISRAEL' on both sides. It was insulting. You sweat a lot when you walk and every now and then you get water thrown at you to freshen you up a bit, so the ink was smudged all over my vest. It was awful."

But Ladany's troubles at the Mexico Olympics didn't end with not having a proper shirt. In the 50-kilometer races, the athletes need help along the way and nobody bothered to organize anything for him. Ladany's wife, together with a volunteer she found along the way, tried to help out.

"In a long race like that, an athlete needs to drink five to six liters of fluids. I prefer orange juice. I prepared drinks for the way stations, but there was nobody to help me. At the first station I was served coffee, but I don't like coffee. By the second station, the orange juice had already gone off because of the heat. I kept on walking even though I felt my stomach churning. The sour orange juice had made me vomit, and then I discovered that I had diarrhea. I stopped walking midway through the race in order to find somewhere to relieve myself. Having diarrhea in the middle of an Olympic competition is very embarrassing. Luckily for me, while I was squatting down by a bush at the side of the road, a Mexican came up to me and gave me a newspaper. We both knew it wasn't for reading."