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Marathon champ Shorter breaks silence on his childhood abuse

Running was a separate world for U.S. Olympic champion and doping opponent Frank Shorter. You ran fast to break clear of the runners pursuing you. If no one could catch you, no one could beat you.

That's unless you think of the other meaning of the word beat.

Shorter, now 63, winner of the 1972 Olympic marathon, broke a lifelong silence in an article by John Brant in the current issue of Runners World magazine about abuse at the hands of his doctor father. Shorter, a native of Munich, Germany, said he was beaten with a leather belt – it was his father's idea of giving Frank attention. His mother also was beaten and his sisters were sexually abused and raped. The father also subjected his family to psychological pressures.

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"And everyone thought what a wonderful picture we made," Shorter said in the most difficult hill he's climbed in his six-decade-long running career.

"I met Frank and knew he had a competitive edge, but I didn't know it had anything to do with having been abused," said Jay Glassman, race director of the annual GoodLife Fitness Toronto Marathon.

"We all have real lives, don't we," said Alan Brookes, race director of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. "I read of his abuse on a blog, and I was shocked."

Shorter, who still is active in masters races, said he was gradually able to open up about a traumatic life with Samuel Shorter, an eye specialist, after his father's death in 2008. John Shorter had what Frank's sister Barbara duPlessis described as "a profound narcissistic personality."

"In [town]they probably thought I was the luckiest little boy in the world to be able to tag along with him," the athlete said. "But I was terrified. I was on red-alert every minute. You never could tell what was going to set him off. A lot of times, it didn't take anything. … He wasn't going to hit me in the car. He'd wait until later, at home, where no one could see him."

Normally, story-telling comes easily to Shorter: His Olympic gold-medal run in 1972, which is generally regarded as the start of the modern running movement; his silver-medal marathon in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where East German Waldemar Cierpinski used doping to beat Shorter out for the gold; Shorter's work as the first chairman of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. But opening up came with difficulty. Marathoners have an innate stoicism. They don't talk of what hurts; they try to run through it.

One of the most difficult moments turned out to be a moment of resolution. Shorter went to see his dying father, who had renal failure. "What I felt, looking into his eyes, was an enormous sense of relief," he recalled. "Now he couldn't hurt me any more. He couldn't hurt my mother [Katherine, who died two years later, in 2010] and he couldn't hurt my sisters or brothers. He couldn't hurt anyone. I would never have to think about him again."

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Mary Shorter-King, 55, said she can remember being raped by her father when she was 6. "I believe rape was part of my father's desire to dominate. … I felt like I lived under a giant thumb. The sexual abuse was part of an overall program of oppression, of keeping kids under that thumb," she said in Runners World.

The Shorter sisters' memories are damning. "Did my father's behaviour constitute abuse? Yes. Beyond the shadow of a doubt," said duPlessis, a registered nurse in the state of New Mexico. "Today, he'd be arrested in a minute. I would invite doubters of my father's crimes to have lived one day in my shoes. A six-year-old kid with belt wounds in her groin is not a sign of discipline, even back in the 1960s."

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About the Author
Sports reporter

James Christie written sports for the Globe on staff since 1974, covering almost all beats and interviewed the big names from Joe DiMaggio, to Muhammad Ali, to Jim Brown to Wayne Gretzky. Also covered the 10 worst years in Toronto Maple Leafs hockey history. More


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