Feature26 Nov 2021

Germar: 'It felt crazy to run a world record'


Germany's Manfred Germar (© Getty Images)

Germany’s Manfred Germar – world 200m record-breaker, European champion and Olympic medallist – made a generous donation of competition kit to the Museum of World Athletics (MOWA) this summer.

After retiring as a sprinter, Germar was the meeting director of the ASV Sports Festival in Cologne for over a quarter of a century. 

'Money didn't matter… but we saw the world'

A large black eagle on a golden-yellow background, neatly embroidered on top of a wide red stripe, used to adorn the national jersey of German track and field athletes. Germar, once one of the world's best sprinters, always wore it with pride.

The last occasion on which he sported this iconic team uniform was during Germany’s visit to India in autumn 1962, and he has bequeathed his jersey from that trip to the MOWA.

"It was always an honour to compete for Germany. Money didn't matter, we didn't receive a penny, but we saw the world," says the now 86-year-old firmly. From 1954 to 1962, he was called up to the national team 52 times, making 123 individual appearances - more than any other German track and field athlete.

Germar – who won relay bronze at the 1956 Olympics, ran two world records and six European records and was European champion three times – filled the stadiums alongside other stars such as Heinz Futterer, Martin Lauer and Armin Hary. Some 40,000 fans at athletics events were not the exception, but the rule.

Germar, who grew up in Cologne in post-war Germany and was equally gifted in sports and music, found his sporting love in athletics after trying football, handball and table tennis.

"From the beginning, my idol was Jesse Owens. I had seen him in a film about Berlin 1936 and was just so passionate about the Olympics," says 'Manni', as his friends still call him. “My wish was to compete in the Olympics one day."

This wish came true for the talented sprinter at the 1956 Olympics. "That was a dream, it was a highlight of my life, an unforgettable journey. We travelled 56 hours to Melbourne," recounts Germar, then a 21-year-old student, who tells of a key experience. "During training I met Jesse Owens, we had our picture taken with him."

The four-time 1936 Olympic champion said to him: "You have a great running style, you just need to do something about that start of yours!" 

Relay bronze saved in Melbourne

There could not have been a more motivational encounter for a young athlete before his Olympic debut. In the 100m – after a weak start – he finished fifth in 10.9, the best European in a final won by Bobby Morrow in 10.5. Owens was right, of course, about Germar's start. But in his career, the German always managed to come from behind and win. Many a relay race looked lost only to be saved by Germar’s incredible energy as the anchor.

He proved his strength as anchor in Melbourne. Although he had acquired a strain that had worsened in the qualifiers, he saved the bronze medal for Germany (Knorzer, Pohl, Futterer, Germar) "in great pain and with the last of his energy", as it was reported in 1956. The USA ran a world record of 39.5. 

"Not only because of this medal, but because of the whole journey, Melbourne remains the great highlight of my career. We were on the road for eight weeks and even travelled back via Hawaii," remembers Germar. Nevertheless, the following two years were to see his biggest sporting successes.

Manfred Germar with Armin Hary (© Getty Images)

Undefeated in 74 races

After Melbourne, he remained undefeated in 74 (!) races over 100m and 200m. "The post-Olympic year 1957 became a unique triumph for Germar, with brilliant performances the likes of which no other German sprinter has ever experienced," wrote Heinz Vogel in the German Leichtathletik magazine.

Germar ran 10.2 and 10.3 over and over again, although, as he says: "I never chased times or records, I always just wanted to win!" Which he succeeded in doing impressively. He also beat the US athletes at that time, was called the "fastest man in the world" in the USA and was voted "Sportsman of the Year" in Germany.

Although the 200m was his favourite discipline, he travelled to the 1958 European Championships in Stockholm as the favourite for both sprint distances. He had also beaten Hary at the German Championships. But in Stockholm in the fight for gold (both 10.4) he had to admit defeat to his compatriot and rival, two years his junior.

"Armin had a very fast start, I didn't see him in the race at first, but when I did, I tensed up," says Germar.

He proved to be a gracious loser, which everyone at the time gave him credit for. His exemplary attitude, good character, modesty and humility have always distinguished him.

He quickly put the disappointment over the 100m in Stockholm behind him, ran to a superior victory in 21.0 over 200m and led the sprint relay team to the gold medal as the anchor. Leichtathletik cheered: "The way that Germar raced down that straight was a great joy and a pleasure!"

World records in the relay and over 200m

Two gold and one silver so far, but the great year 1958 was not yet over for Germar. In the Mungersdorf stadium, in his home city of Cologne, the quartet of Manfred Steinbach, Lauer, Futterer and Germar equalled the world record held by the USA in 39.5 on 29 August.

"Even without Armin Hary, our changeovers worked out excellently," Germar remarks. The 40,000 spectators celebrated the world record relay.

His performance met with similar enthusiasm a few weeks later. On 1 October, Germar set the 200m world record on a 400m track in Wuppertal in 20.6. "It felt crazy to run a world record, even more so because it actually came quite easily," he recalls.

All these successes were achieved by 'Manni' alongside his studies and work. "I only trained twice a week!" That said, he was not lazy about training, as some suspected. "After all, in some years I competed 50 to 60 times, sometimes three times a week." He was in shape and looked towards the 1960 Olympics with optimism.

Bad luck in 1960

But he was dogged by bad luck. Injuries and above all a five-hour jaw operation shattered all his Olympic dreams before Rome. Out of shape, he was eliminated in the heats of both sprints and had to watch the German quartet win Olympic gold.

At that point he wanted to end his career, but still ran in the 1962 European Championships in Belgrade. It was a golden farewell. As the anchor, he led the German quartet to the title in 39.5.

"How much he has longed for it, for this gold medal, this medal that he got himself fit for once again, before hanging up his racing shoes for good at the end of the year,” wrote Leichtathletik. Just before that farewell race, however, he travelled to India with the national team, where he put on the jersey with the federal eagle for the last time.

After the end of his active career, he always remained loyal to athletics and to German sport. He organised the ASV Cologne sports festival 28 times, and for decades he held leading positions at Sporthilfe, the National Olympic Committee and the German Olympic Museum.

Speaking of the Olympics, in Munich 1972 he got a "dream job".

"I was allowed to personally look after some Olympic champions, like Vera Caslavska and Emil Zatopek. Jesse Owens was also there!" And so the circle closes.

Olaf Brockmann for World Athletics