Israeli race walker Shaul Ladany still holds the world record in the 50-mile category which he won in 1972
Israeli race walker Shaul Ladany, a sporting champion who escaped a Nazi concentration camp and survived the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, takes his 15-km morning walk in Omer, a quiet suburb of the southern desert town of Beersheva. © Jack Guez - AFP/File
Israeli race walker Shaul Ladany still holds the world record in the 50-mile category which he won in 1972
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Charly Wegman, AFP
Last updated: June 13, 2012

The long march of Israel's champion walker

To some, Israeli race walker Shaul Ladany is the ultimate survivor -- a sporting champion who escaped a Nazi concentration camp and survived the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, 40 years ago this year.

Today, Ladany lives in Omer, a quiet suburb of the southern desert town of Beersheva, where his house is marked by a wire sculpture of a man in mid-stride that is affixed to the outside of his home.

This year, Ladany turned 76, but he has hardly slowed down. He celebrated the same way he does every birthday -- by walking his new age in kilometres.

Ladany's athletic history would be impressive under any circumstances.

He began his Olympic career in Mexico in 1968, and still holds the world record in the 50-mile (80-kilometre) category which he won in 1972, completing the distance in seven hours, 23 minutes and 50 seconds.

And six years ago, he clinched the world record in the 100-mile category for the over-70s.

But his success is all the more astonishing in light of the tragedy and hardship he has overcome, surviving first the Holocaust and then the 1972 Munich Games massacre, which left 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team dead -- five athletes, four trainers and two referees.

"It was about 2:30 in the morning when I was woken up and warned that Arab terrorists were inside the Olympic village," says Ladany, who managed to escape through his bedroom window.

A German policeman and five Palestinian militants were also killed during the tragedy, which is commemorated at each Olympic Games and will be marked this year in London.

"I have often lived through traumatic experiences," Ladany told AFP, recalling the bombing of his home by the Luftwaffe in April 1941 in Belgrade, his hometown in then Yugoslavia.

Surviving the bombing, he went into hiding in Budapest but was rounded up with his parents by the Nazis and shipped to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

"We experienced gnawing hunger, and interminable SS roll calls in the icy wind and rain," he recalls.

But six months later, he and his parents made it onto a list of 1,685 Jews, including 318 children, who the infamous Adolf Eichmann agreed to release to Switzerland in exchange for $1,000 per person.

"I'm sort of eternally defying death," Ladany says.

Years after his Olympic career ended, Ladany has shrunk, his legs bow slightly and he hunches a little. But he keeps on walking.

At exactly 7:00 am, he sets out on his daily circuit of at least 15 kilometres (9.3 miles), sporting yellow shorts, a blue windbreaker and a washed-out red hat.

He stretches then starts walking, bursting forward with his chest and shoulders out, arms pumping by his sides with the rhythm of a metronome.

Racewalking's rules are strict: running is forbidden, one foot must always be on the ground and the supporting leg must be straight.

The constraints produce a slightly unnatural gait, and Ladany looks almost disjointed, somewhat mechanical as he marches through his quiet neighbourhood.

But as a regular presence in the streets of Omer, with its houses buried beneath cascades of roses and bougainvillaea, he no longer attracts surprised glances.

Back in his living room, where a floor-to-ceiling cabinet holds hundreds of medals, trophies and certificates, Ladany says his commitment to training has served him well.

"Any repeated physical effort bears fruit. Thanks to walking, I'm still on form and I can challenge myself," he says.

"If you take into account strenuous training of around 6,000 to 7,000 kilometres per year (3,730 to 4,350 miles), I've travelled more than half a million kilometres (311,000 miles)," Ladany points out.

In Tel Aviv, the president of Israel's Olympic Committee, Zvi Varshaviak, has nothing but praise for Ladany.

"Ladany is one of our greatest athletes. In his time, he was one of the best in a little-known discipline. And he's not so old, when you consider that our president, Shimon Peres, is approaching 90," he laughs.

Ladany emigrated to Israel in 1948, the year the Jewish state declared independence, where he married and had a daughter. He now has three grandchildren, and a successful career as a professor of industrial engineering.

He is the author of 13 scientific works, as well as his autobiography -- the aptly titled "King of the Road".

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