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Munich still shocks, 40 years later
It was supposed to be a coronation.
As Mark Spitz hopped in a Volkswagen van outside his apartment in Munich’s Olympic Village, he wondered what reporters would ask at his first press conference since he completed the greatest Olympics ever. To be honest, the past 11 days had been a blur, and he wasn’t really sure what he would say: What, just that he was retired now, ready to fly back to the United States and start dental school? Heading over in the van, Spitz had a feeling he knew what the first question would be: “What does it feel like, winning seven gold medals?” “Better than winning six,” he planned to say.
It was a beautiful late-summer morning in Munich, West Germany on Sept. 5, 1972. The 22-year-old swimmer from Sacramento was the king of the sporting world. The night before, he had won the last of his seven events at the Games of the XX Olympiad, earning not only seven golds, but seven world records. He went to a fancy dinner with a couple of journalists from Sports Illustrated, and when Spitz walked into the restaurant, everybody stood and clapped for his achievement of shattering Jesse Owens’ record of four gold medals in one Olympics.
Now he got out of the van and, without any security guards at his side, walked toward the room filled with 1,500 reporters, ready to bask in the moment of his unheard-of Olympic achievement.
“But that question never got a chance to be asked,” Spitz told FOXSports.com.
Because between the final gold medal being slipped over Spitz’s head Monday night and when he walked into the press conference Tuesday morning, something terrible had happened, something even more unheard of than winning seven gold medals. At 4:30 a.m., as Spitz and the 7,000 other Olympic athletes slept in the peaceful sanctuary of the Olympic Village, eight Palestinian terrorists scaled a 6½-foot, chain-link fence, bringing with them gym bags full of Kalashnikov rifles, grenades and submachine guns. They burst into two apartments housing Israeli athletes and coaches.
Mere hours later, as Spitz faced a barrage of shouted questions about what the chaotic scene was like inside the Olympic Village, two members of the Israeli Olympic delegation were already dead and another nine hostages were being held at gunpoint.
Forty years later, as we near the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the memory of the Munich Massacre remains etched in our collective memory. Even those who weren’t alive in 1972 can see the legacy of Munich in the fortress of security built around the London Olympics. More than $2 billion will go to trying to make sure such an incident will not, cannot, happen in London. But the legacy cuts much deeper than that. What transpired on that September morning was a blow to our psyche, a worldwide loss of innocence and a realization that even a utopia of peace and sport isn’t immune to the turmoil of the world.
Sitting at that dais, Spitz knew nothing of the gravity of what was going on around him. He only knew that he was the biggest story of the 1972 Olympics, that he was the most prominent Jewish athlete in the world and that he would be an inviting target for a terrorist operation against Jews.
The press conference ended without a single question about his medals. Spitz taped an interview with Jim McKay, and there Spitz first saw the televised image of the terrorist in a Panama hat talking with negotiators. Then police escorted Spitz back to a locked-down Olympic Village. Rumors abounded Spitz had already been spirited out of Munich: to Zurich, to Geneva, to Barcelona. But Spitz was staying in his apartment, under watch of US State Department officials.
At 5 p.m., Spitz was taken to a subterranean parking lot, where a Mercedes with two policemen waited for him. Spitz was instructed to lie on the floor of the back seat and cover himself with an Army blanket. The car drove him onto the tarmac, and he was the last to board a plane bound for London. He went to the cockpit and showed the pilot his gold medals.
The next morning, less than 48 hours after he won that seventh gold, Spitz woke up at a fancy hotel in London. He went down for breakfast, and he opened a newspaper. All the Israeli hostages had been killed.
It was another time, but in many ways the summer of 1972 was a time much like today. A global recession and fears of inflation dampened worldwide economies. The Cold War was near its height, making Americans uneasy about the future. The United States was winding down a costly, controversial war on the other side of the world, and much of the world was upset at what it saw as American hubris.
The world of 1972 was, like today, a world in flux. But Munich — like London, a European city bathed in history — seemed to promise a peaceful respite for an unsettled world. The 1972 Summer Olympics were supposed to be the “Carefree Games,” helping shed the image of the Germans as a cold, inhospitable people. That wasn’t the only image the Germans wanted to shed. Only 36 years before, another German city played host to an Olympic Games, and the hallmark of the 1936 Berlin Games was the Nazi propaganda that suffused the Games and portended World War II.
In retrospect, it’s easy to look at what happened in Munich and marvel at our naiveté, how the world never imagined that the Olympics, the ultimate symbol of sporting peace, could be a terrorist target. It’s not as if the Olympics had ever truly been anesthetized from the problems of the world. Three times, the Olympics had been canceled because of world wars. The first Olympic boycotts came in 1956, and the 1968 Summer Games saw John Carlos and Tommie Smith flash the black-power salute on the medal stand. Inviting the world’s greatest athletes means inviting the world’s worst problems.
But the idea that a band of rogue Palestinians would take umbrage against Palestine not being allowed to compete, so they would turn the Olympics into the biggest stage for their cause — and during the first time the Olympics were broadcast worldwide via satellite? That wasn’t even within the realm of possibility.
And so, with the images of concentration camps still seared into our minds, the German organizers were happy to embrace the world’s naiveté and go ahead with their idea of the Olympics as a light, airy affair. The 1972 Games were to be free from militarism and scrubbed of the Nazi stain, sending the message that Germany was now a liberal, peaceful, fun-loving country.
This was the first time the Olympics had a mascot: a cute little dachshund named Waldi. Olympic security guards known as Olys were clad in light blue suits, and they didn’t carry weapons. Only $2 million was spent on security at the Munich Games. Athletes were encouraged to live it up, their late-night carousing at the biergartens of Munich often ending with the Olympians scaling the fences to sneak back into the Olympic Village.
In a purely sporting sense, the 1972 Summer Olympics had the makings of one of the most memorable Games ever. There was Spitz, the story of the Games, setting a record many thought could never be broken. There was also Olga Korbut, the Soviet gymnast who captivated worldwide audiences and transformed women’s gymnastics. There was the most controversial gold-medal basketball game in history, between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was 16-year-old Ulrike Meyfarth, the West German high jumper who was the youngest track and field gold medalist in history. There was Dan Gable, the American wrestler who won gold without giving up a single point, and Ivan Yarygin, the Soviet wrestler who won gold by pinning all seven of his opponents.
But 40 years later, what image remains seared into the world’s psyche from the Munich Olympics? Not the tiny, smiling Korbut. Not the steel-chinned Gable. Not even the shirtless Spitz with seven gold medals dangling from his neck.
No, the image we remember from Munich is the masked gunman, leaning over the apartment balcony, stamping a seal of terror on an event so universally beloved.
“It’s the place we were told there are no wars, no hostilities, people living in the Olympic Village together with no boundaries,” said Efraim Zinger, head of the Olympic Committee of Israel. “It was a breaking of a kind of a dream. One morning we woke up, it was kind of a nightmare.”
Shaul Ladany had already lived through one nightmare on German soil. He never thought he would have to live through another.
Just before the opening ceremony for the 1972 Summer Games, Ladany landed in Germany for the first time in more than a quarter-century. He was only 8 years old when he was in Germany before, but those memories were drawn vividly in his mind: Being terrified of the watch tower. Studying the facial expressions of the intimidating guards. Standing in the rain in rows five Jews deep. And staring just to the other side of the electric fence at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where he could see a tomato ripening from green to red, his stomach bulging with desire.
Now he was back, an Olympic racewalker, competing for the young country of Israel at an Olympics held only 15 miles from the infamous Nazi concentration camp of Dachau.
Ladany’s grandparents had been killed at Auschwitz, and he had spent a half-year of his own youth at a concentration camp. But as he walked proudly around Munich in his Israeli Olympic uniform, he knew this was a different Germany than before. These Germans were eager to please. Still, Ladany was on guard. Every time he met a German, he calculated their age, and he guessed what sort of position they might have had during the war. Were they old enough that they might have had a role with the Nazis? If so, he avoided them.
On the evening of Sept. 4, the entire Israeli team was invited to something special: A gala performance of “Fiddler on the Roof.” During intermission, the Israeli team met the show’s star, the iconic Israeli actor Shmuel Rodensky. The team took photos with him and then dined with him after the show.
How unusual, Ladany thought at the time. The quintessential Jewish tragedy, a play originally written in Yiddish, performed in the country that not long ago slaughtered 6 million Jews. And now the Israeli Olympians were guests of honor. He smiled at the thought.
The Israeli team got back to the Olympic Village at midnight. Moshe Weinberg, the Israeli wrestling coach, asked Ladany if he could borrow his alarm clock; he needed to wake up early the next morning to take a wrestler to a competition. Ladany helped his friend set the clock to go off at 5:30 a.m. Then he retired to Apartment 2 in Building 31 in the Olympic Village. Weinberg went to sleep next door in Apartment 1.
Before the alarm had a chance to go off, Weinberg was dead.
The nightmare began quickly and then dragged on throughout the day of Sept. 5.
The eight masked men broke into Apartment 1, the one that housed Israeli coaches. Weinberg was roused from his sleep. He fought the intruders, and they shot him through his cheek. The terrorists forced Weinberg to show where other Israelis were staying. He led them past Ladany’s apartment and to Apartment 3, where six wrestlers and weightlifters — the tough guys of the Olympic team — were sleeping. The gunmen woke those Israelis and led them back to Apartment 1, and on the way back, Weinberg attacked the terrorists again. He was shot and killed, and so was weightlifter Yossef Romano. Back in Apartment 1, the nine hostages were tied to a chair and two beds, Romano’s corpse resting at their feet.
“I did not hear anything until a friend from my apartment, from the upper floor, awakened me,” said Ladany, now 76 and still living in Israel. “He said something like, ‘Moshe was killed by Arabs.’ I thought he was joking.”
Then Ladany opened the front door and listened as Olympic guards asked the terrorist in the Panama hat to please be humane. Ladany closed the door, went back inside, and opened the window curtain. He could see the entrance to Apartment 1 was stained in blood. It was Weinberg’s blood, his body having been tossed outside the entrance as a warning from the terrorists.
Ladany slid open the glass door that led to a terrace. He raced across the sloping gardens that led to the basement of the building and to safety.
“Maybe it was because I already at age 5 had experienced a German bomb hitting the house in which we were staying, and then my passing through many, many incidents during my life, but I was not getting nervous,” Ladany said.
The Germans were. The Olympics that were supposed to revitalize their worldwide image had turned into their worst nightmare, with Jewish blood again being shed on German soil. The terrorists, from a group called Black September, gave negotiators a list of 234 prisoners they wanted released from Israeli jails. They gave a deadline: Noon. Or they would start killing hostages.
Word came from Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir: Israel would make no concessions to terrorists. The terrorists pushed their deadlines back, first to 3 p.m., then to 5 p.m., only adding drama to their spectacle. German Olympic Committee member Walther Troger, who was serving as "mayor" of the Olympic Village, offered himself as a replacement for the Israeli hostages, but the terrorists rebuffed him. Then the terrorists made a new demand: They wanted to be transported to the airport and be given an airplane for safe passage to a Muslim country.
A bus took the captors and hostages to two helicopters, and the helicopters took them to a nearby airport. An ambush was planned; German sharpshooters were stationed at the airport. But they weren’t given night-vision goggles, so they couldn’t see anything in the night. German police officers were disguised as the flight crew. But at the last minute, the German police voted to call off the ambush on the airplane, thinking it too dangerous. And this came after Germany had turned down the Israeli offer to send an elite special force to help.
“I was astounded by the German incompetence,” said director Kevin Macdonald, who won an Oscar for his documentary on the Munich Massacre, “One Day in September.” “This was their absolute worst nightmare, that Israelis would be dying on German soil again. And they all went into a blind panic.”
On the morning of Sept. 6, 1972, Barbara Berger woke up in a campground in Austria, knowing nothing of the tragedies the day before in Munich.
She had come to Europe from her family’s home near Cleveland, here to see her older brother, David Berger, compete as a weightlifter in the 1972 Summer Olympics, the only American-born athlete on the Israeli team. After he competed in Munich — he didn’t do well — she went on a camping trip with her other brother, Fred Berger.
David had always been a dreamer. He was a bleeding-heart pacifist, a man who planned to work for Legal Aid in New York City after he graduated from Columbia law school, a man who once wrote an anti-war poem that began, “Don't you have an obligation young man, to butcher, maim, mutilate for the sake of freedom.”
Olympic team members stand on the field as the Olympic flag flies at half-staff during a memorial service in the Munich Olympic Stadium on Sept. 6, 1972. Eleven Israeli team members were killed by members of the Palestinian Black September group at the Summer Olympic Games. A crowd of 80,000 filled the stadium to capacity.
But ever since age 13, when he started to get into weightlifting, David became obsessed with the sport. He kept journals of every lift. He dreamed of making the Olympics. He won a collegiate weightlifting title. And then he decided to emigrate to Israel. There, he thought, he actually would have a chance to make the Olympic weightlifting team. And he did, his whole body so packed with muscle mass that he wasn’t even able to float in a pool.
In Munich, Barbara and Fred watched David compete and they soaked in the Olympic spectacle. She wore David’s Israeli Olympic jacket so she could sneak in and out of the Olympic Village. And then she left for Austria.
“I got up in the morning, and on the way to the shower I hear this radio broadcast in English, which said 11 members Israeli Olympic team had been killed,” Barbara Berger said. “But it didn’t say who. . . . In my mind I thought it just can’t possibly be David.”
As Barbara was hiking in the Austrian wilderness, her parents had spent the day glued to the television back in Ohio, waiting for any bit of news from ABC broadcaster Jim McKay. When he finally got the news in the studio, McKay, who died in 2008, thought of Berger’s family when he spoke these now legendary words: “When I was a kid, my father used to say, ‘Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They've now said that there were 11 hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They're all gone.’ ”
Berger was the last hostage to die. After a gun battle on a botched rescue attempt, terrorists blew up a grenade in a helicopter. Berger was shot twice, but the shots weren’t fatal. He died of smoke inhalation.
Forty years later, memories of Munich still echo. The Munich Games were a clarion call for the Olympic movement. Security is now the top concern for countries putting on Olympics, especially after the attacks of 9/11 showed the scale of the Al Qaeda threat. A group of activists have been lobbying the International Olympic Committee to have a minute of silence at the opening ceremony of every Olympic Games, but the IOC has not been receptive, worried about sensitivities of Muslim countries. Israel has a day of remembrance every year to honor the Munich 11.
“For Israelis in general, Munich ‘72 is a traumatic moment,” said Zinger, the Israeli Olympic chief. “That was a moment when we had to make a decision, whether to stop participating in events that killed our people or to continue and carry on with their legacy. . . . Today, every Israeli athlete knows this story, not just reading about it or listening to it but getting to know the families of those 11 athletes, the widows, the sons and daughters, and also the grandkids.”
“Yet we still wonder: How come in an event like the Olympic Games, which was supposed to be about peace, 11 of our athletes came back in caskets?” he continued. “It’s part of our philosophy, even if there are bad things, even if there are traumatic events, even if there are obstacles, if you believe in what you are doing you have to carry on.”
The terrorists might have awakened the world, but they did not accomplish their goal. Some say their actions set back the cause for Palestinian statehood 20 years. Forty years later, there still is no Palestinian state.
The most obvious legacy of Munich going into the London Games will be the near-totalitarian emphasis on security: the long lines, the radiation detection equipment, the facial recognition technology, the bomb-sniffing dogs. The ubiquitous security presence in London could be seen as a sign of our times, a global shift in mentality that began when a group of Palestinian terrorists scaled a fence in Munich.
“That’s the sad thing, that you can’t just have an Olympics and everybody enjoy it,” said Macdonald, the film director. “This festival of peace has to have this ring of steel around it, which does nothing to improve the atmosphere and costs a fortune, but you have to have it in case of the eventuality that someone uses it as a showcase. It’s the biggest show on earth, and if you want to do something terrible, what better place?”
There have been far larger terrorist attacks since Munich. But none of them, with the exception of the 9/11 attacks, carry the same significance as Munich.
“They remember it because it happened at the Olympics — that’s what was so shocking,” Macdonald said. “We say to ourselves as human beings — who never get along, who are warlike with each other — that this is one time we can say we’ll set all that aside and compete in a sporting way, and young people from different countries and different cultures come together and bond and find commonality through sport. That was destroyed. That’s what’s so traumatic to the whole world.”
For those who were so close to the events, it’s even more so.
For Dave Wottle, an American who won gold in Munich in the 800-meter run, what remains etched in his mind is seeing Germans the morning after the incident, sobbing.
“They wanted so badly to erase images of Germany from 1936, and then to have this happen to Israeli athletes was the ultimate tragedy of those Olympics for the Germans,” he said.
Barbara Berger has no desire to go to an Olympics again. She loves that people remember her brother but wishes it were for something else. “He’s somebody known more for dying than for living," she said.
Shaul Ladany, who still competes as a racewalker at age 76, attends a memorial service every year in Tel Aviv. As a military veteran, he’s still angry at the Germans for what he sees as a botched rescue operation.
And Mark Spitz, his seven gold medals in tow, flew from London to Los Angeles the day the Israelis were killed and then from Los Angeles back home to Sacramento. A bevy of press awaited him at the airport. He answered their questions, he got a police escort and then he was home. The nightmare, for him, was over.
I cannot escape Munich, and I cannot escape the tragedy.
But in one respect, the nightmare has stuck with him. If it weren’t for the terrorist attacks, the Munich Olympics would have been forever known as the Mark Spitz Olympics. Instead, his accomplishment serves as the first footnote — albeit in very large type — for an event that shaped modern history.
“It was definitely tragic, a set of circumstances that was certainly beyond anyone’s imagination,” Spitz says today. “The triumph of what I’d done along with the tragedy propelled my accomplishments to even greater recognition. Not only was it a sports event, but I became a world event associated with this terrible tragedy. I cannot escape Munich, and I cannot escape the tragedy.”
But the Olympics, at their most fundamental level, aren’t defined by the risk of tragedy that constantly lingers in the shadows. The Olympics are about idealism, about promoting peace through athletic competition. Despite so much evidence to the contrary, the Olympics are about believing in the goodness of humanity.
So in London this summer, more than 10,000 of the world’s greatest athletes will congregate. And, yes, there’s a chance they will bring with them the world’s worst problems. Yet the athletes will still come, and so will millions of spectators. Because we all know that the risk is worth taking.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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