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Tragedy cast a pall over Munich Games

Posted: Sunday July 11, 2004 7:47PM; Updated: Sunday July 11, 2004 7:47PM
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ATHENS, July 9 (Reuters) -- They were the Olympic Games when the world of sport changed: Munich 1972.

Looking back now to Games that started as the most joyous ever and ended as the most tragic, the signs of what was to happen were there already, though no-one could have imagined how awful it would be.

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It was as though a seething volcano of unresolved world political and sporting issues finally erupted on September 5, leaving 11 Israeli athletes and officials dead at the hands of a radical Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) splinter group.

Doping, the anti-apartheid struggle, the dying moments of Olympic amateurism, the Middle East conflict, the Cold War and the China-Taiwan row were the grim spectators at Munich for the worst day in sports.

How different it had been when the Games, a final welcome back to the international community for Germany after World War Two, started on a glorious, sunny day with children dancing in the opening ceremony.

The setting was idyllic. Landscaped artificial lakes and waterfalls, relaxed guards, happy hostesses in their blue-and-yellow uniforms and the voices of children.

I had spent the previous 18 months covering the Vietnam War and Munich was my first visit to the heart of Europe.

How Munich lived up to my expectations. The sense of style and history for someone who was born and brought up in the Australian outback was a constant amazement. The world seemed so good and full -- and, after Vietnam, so peaceful.

STARTER'S GUN

But perhaps there was a personal omen for me of the horror to come, when the starter's gun fired for the opening race of the Games.

It was the first shot I had heard fired since Vietnam and I instinctively dived under the media benches to the curses of my colleagues whose view of the race I disrupted.

Sheepishly picking myself up, I was banished to get quotes from athletes for the remainder of the day and assigned to cover volleyball.

And so to September 5. Hungover like most journalists at the Games from Munich's beer-hall hospitality, I was roused shortly after daylight from my bed and told to get immediately to the Olympic village because there had been an "incident" there.

Gunmen had broken into the village, killed two Israelis and taken nine more hostage, demanding the release of prisoners held in Israel.

The next 24 hours are a jumble of memories and emotions, long hours in the sun outside the walls of the village waiting for news of the hostage negotiations going on inside.

A rustle went through us when an ambulance with siren wailing rushed through the village's gates and returned 30 minutes later--- carrying an Italian photographer who had jumped over the wall and broken his leg.

As the sun was setting, myself and a colleague found a way through the security cordon into the village where we spent the next several hours peeking around a building for an on-the-spot view of the drama.

We rushed backwards and forwards from our vantage point to a public telephone -- there were no mobile phones then -- to file reports.

These were the first Games to be broadcast live around the world and even though I was on the spot it was the long-range television cameras that had by far the best views.

I recall telephoning in a report and my editor screaming at me that television was showing the hostages moving and why did I not have it.

BOTCHED RESCUE

With night closing in and the hostages on the move by helicopter to Furstenfeldbruck Military Airport, my colleague and I raced in a taxi to the airfield.

Halfway there, we called in for the latest information and were assured that the crisis was over and the hostages had been freed safely but were told to keep going to the airport anyway.

Shortly after we arrived at the airport perimeter, we heard gunfire but the guards assured everyone that it was just the troops inside clearing their weapons now that the hostage-taking was over safely.

Then came the awful news that an attempt to rescue the hostages had been botched. The hostages were dead, as were five of the gunmen and a policeman.

The Games did go on but there was a pall over the remaining days.

Sometimes it is possible to remember the sporting achievements of Munich.

Russia's Valeri Borzov raced upright down the track like an express train to win the 100 metres sprint.

Watching from the sidelines were Americans Eddie Hart and Ray Robinson whose coach had misread the time of the qualifying heats, denying two athletes who had broken 10 seconds the chance to challenge the burly Russian.

In the swimming pool, Mark Spitz collected his record haul of seven gold medals while in the gymnastics hall Russia's Olga Korbut started the procession of teenage gymnasts who entrance crowds to this day.

But my favourite memory is of American Dave Wottle winning the 800 metres. Running in his white tennis cap, Wottle came from the back of the field to mow down everyone with a devastating sprint home.

- - - -

++Brian Williams, currently Reuters chief correspondent in Greece and Cyprus, has covered six Olympic Games since Munich. He was in charge of logistics for Reuters at the 2000 Sydney Games, a task he will repeat in Athens. Since joining Reuters in 1969 he has worked in bureaux in Vietnam, Cambodia, Sydney, New York, Islamabad, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Tokyo and London.

Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.


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