Questions & Answers / A Conversation With Shaul P. Ladany

Israel has never had another race walker like Shaul Ladany, who represented the country at two Olympiads, and many of whose records still stand. Only recently has he slowed down enough to publish his memoirs.

Among Israelis who grew up during the age when there were annual marches that brought thousands out into nature to walk epic distances, Shaul P. Ladany is a familiar name, and remembered as a symbol of national pride. He walked his first race in 1962, and in the decades that followed, he won the Israeli national walking championship 28 times. His 1972 world record for the 50-mile walk remains unbroken, and he also holds the national record for the 50-kilometer walk. He continues to walk today, at age 72, and to participate in select non-competitive events, including an annual swim across Lake Kinneret.

Ladany recently published an English edition of his 1996 Hebrew-language autobiography, "King of the Road: From Bergen-Belsen to the Olympic Games" (Gefen Publishing, 375 pages, $24.95, paperback). He did indeed represent Israel at the Olympics - twice, in Mexico City in 1968 and four years later, in Munich. The latter games, of course, were overshadowed by the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists. On September 3, 1972, Ladany came in in 19th place in the 50-kilometer walk. The next evening, Ladany became one of the six male athletes who survived the attack on the team. He describes the experience at length in the book, and is critical of the lax security measures employed by the Germans, and outraged by the fact - which became public only decades later - that German commandos brought in to surprise the terrorists got tired of waiting at the airfield from which they and their hostages were to be flown out of the country, and left their post before the kidnappers and their captives arrived. Ladany also believes that then-prime minister Golda Meir was wrong in calling the surviving members of the team back to Israel after the attack, arguing that it amounted to giving Israel?s enemies "two additional victories, abandoning the Olympic arena and interrupting our routine."

Ladany was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1936. During World War II, he and his immediate family succeeded in escaping to safety in Switzerland, but not before they were imprisoned at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany for six months in 1944. "I remember every day of those six months," he writes.

The family arrived in Israel in December 1948. Ladany studied mechanical engineering at the Technion, and in 1968 received his doctorate in industrial engineering from Columbia University. The last three decades of his academic career were spent at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where he is now emeritus professor. He holds patents for eight mechanical designs, and has published more than a dozen books in his field. He talks about having had two careers, one in academia, the other as a walker. He spoke to Haaretz by phone from his home in Omer, outside Be'er Sheva.

Q: You write in "King of the Road" that you remember every day of your stay in Bergen-Belsen, but from the level of detail in your book, my sense was that you remember every day of your life. Did you keep a diary?

A: My memory is not bad. But I want to tell you that just today, at the request of my friend Haim Grossman, I went to speak to a group of teachers in Tel Aviv about the Maccabiah Games. I wanted to tell them about one of the games' organizers, who had been a leader of the Hakoah sports club in Vienna, and who was also a member of the second Knesset [1951-1955]. His name was George, but I broke my head trying to remember his last name. Only on the train back to Be?er Sheva did I remember the name: Flash. I never kept a diary in my life. But I did keep newspaper clippings, and I have albums of clips from 1962 until '72. I end the book in 1975.

Q: You actually say very little in the book about Bergen-Belsen. And you also note how reluctant you were to visit Dachau, near Munich, with the Olympic team in 1972. Are these memories you prefer to avoid?

A: I think it's true that I didn't want to return to memories of the Holocaust. But every person undergoes changes. About 10 years ago, my wife and I were in Germany, and we did visit both Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, and now, every time I'm in Europe, I visit the latter. I was there for the 50th anniversary of liberation, and again when the museum [at Bergen-Belsen] was dedicated a year ago. It's hard for me to explain.

Q: You say that the two weeks you spent in the Hungarian monastery where your parents left you briefly for safekeeping were the most terrifying in your life. Why do you think that was, considering it was a place that gave you shelter?

A: I have no complaints against the monastery. But as an 8-year-old, I remember what my feelings were. I had to keep the fact that I was Jewish a secret, but I didn?t know how to lie. So I was frightened the entire time that I would be found out. I always say that after that experience, I wasn't afraid of anything.

Q: I get the feeling that you still haven't learned to lie.

A: I do generally say what's on my mind. Sometimes I tell a white lie in order to spare someone?s feelings. If I am given a dish I don't much like, I'll say that it?s "interesting."

Q: At the beginning of your athletic career you were a runner. How did you move into competitive walking?

A: It started with my participation in the four-day walks [40 kilometers each day] in Israel each spring. I think I had a passion for recognition. I saw that people who came in first in the walk were appreciated and praised, and I was impressed. It was a big event in those days, with tens of thousands of participants at its peak, and a lot of press coverage. It was amazing. I was 22 or 23, and I thought I'd try. I started walking it every year, beginning in 1957, but otherwise I kept running, until a friend who accompanied me - he would run by my side as I walked - said, you walk better than anyone else in Israel. I told people at the Hebrew University, where I was then working, and they organized me a three-kilometer race, in 1962 or ?63, at the stadium in Givat Ram. And in my first competition, I beat the then-champion of Israel. That pushed me to keep training just for walking competitions. And I got better and better.

The [four-day] march was very long, and it required training. And when you finished, you felt a real sense of accomplishment - not everyone can do it. There's still a version of it done today in Jerusalem, but it's only over one day, and you need a magnifying glass to see the distance.

Q: How is walking as a sport faring today in Israel?

A: It's an anomaly. Today more people walk for exercise than do any other sport. You can see them every day - people in every town and community, walking for exercise. But in competitions, you see very few people, very few. I hold the sports institutions responsible for this; they don't encourage people to compete. I have actually heard the possibility raised officially of bringing athletes from abroad to compete for Israel internationally as walkers, the way we import soccer and basketball players. They want to bring blacks from Kenya at age 15 or 16, and train them to compete. I get goose bumps from the very idea.

Q: No offense intended, but it is a funny-looking sport. Isn't it possible it will never attain the cachet that running has?

A: Everything that people aren't used to looks bizarre to them. But in the 1950s, when I started running, people also thought I was a nut. Jews didn't run. They would laugh. But tell me, when you see a woman walking, do you laugh at the about fact that her [pelvic] girdle rotates? No, you don't. In race walking, you exploit the geometry of the body to your benefit, you take advantage of the rotation of the hips.

Q: How much walking are you doing these days?

A: It's part of my life, and I do a minimum of 15 kilometers a day. The hardest walk I do each year is non-competitive, a four-day, 300-kilometer walk from Paris to Tubize, near Brussels. It's almost 80 kilometers a day for three days, and the final day, you walk 60 kilometers. That's at the end of May, and when I'm in training for it, I walk for 12 hours a day.

Q: Tell me a little about your professional career.

A: I do industrial engineering, but my bachelor's degree was in mechanical engineering. In the latter, when you discover a need, you have to find a solution. That gave me the tools to find solutions by way of mechanical processes and tools. But it's not connected to my activity as a researcher.

Q: Can you give me an example of what an industrial engineer does?

A: We are involved in operations research, that is, using mathematical methods to calculate the optimal behavior of systems. For example, right now I'm working on a problem for a very important government organization. The problem: You want to know where an airplane, or a missile, or even a tumor will be at a certain point in time. My mission is to develop tools to estimate that point. It requires complicated mathematics and empirical testing.

Q: Do you find that you do good thinking while you're walking?

A: Definitely. When you?re exercising you have more blood, and hence more oxygen, flowing to the brain. If I'm not too tired, I find that I can solve more problems. My breakthroughs always come when I'm walking. I have come up with mathematical models while I'm walking.

Q: But how do you remember these complex thoughts over a long walk? Do you talk into a tape recorder?

A: I think that it's similar to the way a chess player can think seven or eight moves forward. I never use a tape recorder, but I remember things. I'm generally pretty old-fashioned. I don?t even have a cell phone, and I don?t plan to have one. I use a computer for e-mail only at my office, and I don't like looking at the Internet.