Wladyslaw Komar was many things in a tumultuous life cut short by a car crash – a refugee, an orphan, a boxer, a wrestler, a high-profile film actor and a shot putter who won gold for Poland at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich with an Olympic record.
Born in 1940 into an aristocratic Polish family of landowners, Komar inherited sports genes from his father, who had competed as Vladas Komaras for Lithuania in the high jump and 110m hurdles at the inaugural 1934 European Athletics Championships, and his mother, who had set a Polish record in the shot put in the early 1930s.
During the war his father helped the Polish Resistance against German occupation, and was murdered in 1944 by German Security Police. When the Red Army arrived in 1945 Komar’s mother feared they might be deported to Siberia as other landowners had been, so she fled with her young son to Warsaw before placing him in an orphanage near Poznan.
In 1953 he rejoined his mother in the Polish capital and soon took up amateur boxing, competing as a heavyweight and progressing to the point where he was representing his country at U20 level.
A first-round knockout by an Italian opponent convinced him that he might have a better sporting future in athletics, where he was a talented shot putter who also excelled in the high jump and decathlon, setting a Polish record in the latter event in 1963.
A long road to Olympic success
At the 1962 European Athletics Championships in Belgrade he missed a shot put medal by one place. Two years later he went to the Tokyo Olympics with high hopes, having improved the Polish record to 19.50m, just six centimeters shy of the European record, but he finished ninth with 18.20m.
Four years later he finished sixth in the 1968 Olympic final in Mexico City, won by Randy Matson of the United States, who had thrown an Olympic record of 20.68m in qualifying. By the time Komar was preparing for Munich he had added another European bronze to his collection at the 1971 European Athletics Championships in Helsinki.
Before the event there was much attention on the prospects of the throwers from East Germany, the rapidly rising athletics force of that era, although the silver medallist from Mexico, George Woods, was also favoured to maintain a United States winning tradition in this Olympic event that went back to before the Second World War.
But Komar, now a three-time Olympian and operating under a nickname of King Kong that had been traced to an article in Sports Illustrated, was far from being disregarded.
Matson’s Olympic record was beaten by the first round effort of 20.97m by East Germany’s Hartmut Briesenick, who was the sixth thrower in the order. That in turn was beaten by the tenth of the first-round throwers, Briesenick’s compatriot Hans-Peter Gies, who recorded 21.14m.
Komar's first round KO in Munich
Komar was the fourteenth thrower to go – and with his opening effort he extended the Olympic record to 21.18m, a distance none of his rival could match.
That said, they came close. Briesenick matched Gies’ 21.14m effort, and ultimately displacing him from the podium through having a better second-best effort, and with Woods making a huge final effort to turn silver into gold but having to settle for silver again with 21.17m.
Komar’s victory was achieved by dint of one extra centimetre. As such it was the narrowest margin in an Olympic men’s shot put final. That is, once the gold medal won in the Ancient Stadium of Olympia by Ukraine’s Yuriy Bilonoh during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens had been stripped following a positive finding when his sample was re-tested in 2012.
Komar continued to compete at the highest level for several years, earning his last big medal, a bronze, in 1977 at the European Athletics Indoor Championships, where he had previously earned three silvers and a bronze.
Even before retiring he had become an actor and in the space of more than two decades, his IMDb listing had grown as lengthy as his list of athletics medals. Komar appeared in more than 10 films, starting with Kazimierz Wiekli, released in 1975, in which he played Wladzio and including Roman Polanski’s 1986 comedy film Pirates, in which he played Jesus.
He was also part of a wrestling show organised by Poland’s former Olympian Andrzej Supron which toured the Soviet Union in 1989 and 1990.
Komar died on August 17 1998 after a car crash when he was returning from an athletics meeting in Miedzyzdroje together with another famous Polish Olympian, pole vaulter Tadeusz Slusarski, who won gold at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and silver four years later in Moscow.
Slusarski was also killed, and the two men are buried together. By a morbid coincidence, the other car involved in the collision was driven by another athlete, former sprinter Jaroslaw Marzec, who died a few days later.
A memorial athletics meeting in honour of all three victims is held annually in Miedzyzdroje.