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After the Nightmare

As another Olympics approaches, a noted author recalls the tragic evens of Munich, 1972, describes the shattering effect the murders had on three Israelis, including world-class sprinter Esther Roth, and tells what they have done with their lives since

By E.L. Doctorow

Issue date: June 28, 1976

Sports Illustrated Flashback
REPLAY: This particular event of the XXth Olympiad, in Munich, begins at an odd hour. It is 4:30 a.m. A group of young men dressed in warmup suits and carrying equipment bags are scaling the eight-foot security fence of the Olympic Village. A guard at the end of the street catches sight of them, smiles and turns his back: another bunch who has broken curfew. Once over the fence the transgressors move into the Village. They stop in a narrow alley, open their bags and pull out their Kalashnikov submachine guns.


LET US LOOK at a lonely long distance runner. His name is Yuval Wischnitzer. He is 28 and he runs every morning of his life. He has red hair, freckled skin, white eyebrows. The bones of his face give him the fierce aspect of an eagle. He runs on his family's farm in Avigdor, a town so small that you cannot find it on the map. Avigdor is in Israel and Wischnitzer is the one international-class male runner this small nation hopes to bring to Montreal this summer.

 
Main story
  • When the Terror Began
  • Sidebars
  • The American
  • The Mastermind
  • Striking Back
  • A Painful Visit
  • Flashbacks
  • A Sanctuary Violated
  • Shootings in the Night
  • After the Nightmare
  • Munich's Message
  • He runs distances from 1,500 to 10,000 meters. The Israel Olympic Committee has told him that if he wants to get to Montreal he must first run the 5,000 meters in 13:40. The Committee feels that anything slower makes him noncompetitive and therefore not worth the cost of the trip. On the other hand, they have no doubt that he will make it.

    But Wischnitzer, who has to do the running, is not that sure. He ran a 13:39.8 in August of 1974, but he won't be sure until he does it again. Every morning he puts on his track shoes and runs and listens to himself as a musician listens to the notes he plays. The runner feels the effort of his run and suffers it, but above and outside this feeling he contemplates his own performance and is critical of its deficiencies. Something as intimate as his own pain or rhythm of his breathing he considers as objectively as the jockey considers his horse. What Wischnitzer hopes for as he runs is to feel integral -- that is to feel without self-consciousness or ego the exhiliration of his best speed.

    So there is this condition of Yuval Wischnitzer's life -- the classic solitude of the runner in constant critical relation to himself.

    Beyond that, he endures the peculiar isolation of a class runner in Israel, a country which produces very few track stars. By comparison, New Zealand, with an even smaller population, produces many. John Walker, who has run the mile in a world record 3:49.4, comes from New Zealand. But New Zealand does not take it 18-year-olds and put them into the army for three years and call them back for periodic reserve service. A physiologist in Israel discovered that until the age of 17 Israeli boys have among the best physiques in the world and are the kind of prime population from which great athletes come. But after 17 everything goes. The boys wear off their genius in the army. By the age of 21, it is too late for a young man to recover his promise. Therefore, one as dogged and determined as Yuval Wischnitzer must go to other countries to find the races he needs to develop. In Israel there is no competition.

    And now he may really begin to talk of isolation. For most international meets Wischnitzer makes his own arrangements. In 1973 at the World University Games in Moscow, he was booed by 100,000 Russian fans. Since then the situation for an Israeli runner has worsened. He is not invited to France. Eastern Europe blacklists him totally. The Third World countries discouraged his application and last year in Stockholm he was able to run in the Dagens Nieter Games only by appearing under the colors of a Swedish club with no mention being made of his Israeli nationality.

    Now that is a great and terrible loneliness. Wischnitzer's body is not political but his world is. One would rather run down a country road in the sun just to be doing it than compete in this way.

    Today, nations have armies and navies and they have athletes. It takes a peculiar combination of killing and public relations to run a country. Athletes, like those of Eastern Europe, may be totally supported by the state; in some Western European countries they may receive government subsidies by meeting standards of performance; in the United States they may receive university scholarships; in Israel they may participate in the distribution of funds raised by a national football lottery. Whatever the means of support, there are very few athletes in the world who want to pay their own way -- or can. They just want to run, or to swim. If they're good they'll keep their minds on their running or their swimming and let their countries take care of them with that kind of innocent expectation, that natural assumption of their own deservingness that is true also of infants.

    But Yuval Wischnitzer is a highly intelligent man, far more articulate than an athlete is supposed to be. When not in training he works as an economist in Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Perhaps that is why he is so sensitive to the politics of sport. He is able to talk on the subject with wry humor. He points out, for instance, that within Israel itself amateur sports have an intensely political character. (There is no professional sports establishment equivalent to ours in Israel.) The leading amateur clubs, which comprise virtually the whole of organized sports, are affiliated with political parties. And it is a widespread belief that the club that wins the crucial annual football tournament in Jerusalem will produce for its sponsoring party approximately 35,000 additional votes in the next national elections.

    Wischnitzer withdrew from one of the clubs, Hapoel, some years ago. As a result he is not popular with the sports establishment. He describes Israel's selection of Olympic athletes this way: "Mr. Glovinsky [head of the Olympic Committee] wants to go to Montreal. But he needs athletes to get in. So that's how some of us get to go, too." At least one official who knows Wischnitzer suggests that it is just this attitude, this irreverent intelligence, that will probably prevent him from becoming a winner in the world class. But not necessarily. Intelligence can run the body as it can the mind; outrage can power one's legs as well as one's brain cells.

    Wischnitzer failed to qualify for the Olympics in the 1,500 by one second. But he has his opinions about Munich, 1972, as does every Israeli. He says, "Israel should not have withdrawn from the Olympics after the death of the 11. Any athlete who could have competed at that point should have. Israel should have stayed if only to fly the flag." He is not unmindful of the irony that since Munich and the victimization of the Israeli team, Israel's political position in international sports has changed for the worse. He says the only country with more difficulties is South Africa.

    International games are a precise barometer of international relations, and the publicizing of ideological points of view by the strategic withdrawal of athletes from the games is a universal practice. There are other ways of expressing political disapproval. At those same World University Games in Moscow in 1973 in which Wischnitzer was booed, Red Army soldiers destroyed Israeli flags in the stands during basketball games. In the 1974 Asian Games in Teheran, Esther Roth, Israel's premier runner, won a gold medal. The Chinese silver and bronze medal winners refused to shake her hand. In 1975 India refused the Israeli team a visa, thus preventing it from playing in the world table tennis championship in Calcutta.

    Wischnitzer says that after the Arab-sponsored U.N. resolution condemning Zionism as a form of racism he thought the next step was for Israel to be kicked out of the Olympics. He feels in any event that if the Olympics of 1976 happened to have been located in a Third World country Israel certainly wouldn't have been allowed to participate. "We're lucky the Olympics are in Montreal," he says.

    Withal he runs. He runs within concentric circles of loneliness on a track seemingly shared by no one else. He likes to run. He has the classic development of the track athlete: lean, spare of frame, fairly tall, with little development of the upper body, which is the part that must be carried. He may qualify for the Olympics or he may not, but Yuval Wischnitzer has no fears about racing in Montreal or anywhere else. He wants to run. "I hope I am too fast to be a good target," he says with a smile.


    At 4:55 a.m. an Israeli wrestling coach hears a knock at the door of the team quarters and gets up to answer it. "Is this the Israeli team?" a voice asks in German. The coach opens the door a crack and sees a weapon. He throws himself against the door, shouting back over his shoulder to alert his sleeping roommate. A short burst of submachine-gun fire splinters the door and kills the coach instantly.

    A moment later athletes are breaking windows with their hands and elbows and leaping into the street. Bullets whistle past their heads. In one room a wrestler, an immensely strong man, hold off the intruders by putting his back to the door. "Boys, get out," he yells. In another room a weight lifter tries to stand off the killers with a knife. They shoot him.

    The territory is taken. Nine Israeli team members who didn't get out sit roped together on their beds. The acrid smell of fired rounds hangs in the air. And the terrorists are ready to begin negotiations with the world. They are the Black September faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In return for the lives of these athletes they want more than 200 Arab guerrillas released from Israeli prisons. They want a plane for themselves and the hostages. They set a deadline.


    FOR MRS. ANKIE Spitzer the Olympics in Montreal should be an occasion for at least one minute of silence. That minute in which 70,000 people would stand in silent salute to the dead of Munich could begin to reconcile her to the four years she has lived alone and often embattled since the death of her husband, the fencing master, Andre Spitzer.

    Ankie Spitzer lives with her 4-year-old daughter Anouk Yael in a pleasant duplex apartment in a suburb of Tel Aviv. The apartment is airy and light with lots of plants. Strewn about are toys of the sort chosen by thoughtful and progressive parents -- colorful wooden toys of the nonviolent kind. On the white walls of the living room are photographs of her late husband who was 27 when he was killed. One sees a slender man, a long face framed with heavy black eyeglasses. Smiling, he holds a newborn infant.

    Ankie Spitzer is now 30. She is a fencer herself and met her husband in Holland where he came from Israel to coach. Mrs. Spitzer fenced for Holland. She is a convert to Judaism, having been born and raised the daughter of an economic advisor to the Dutch government. She is a trim, good-looking woman who wears her hair short and moves something like a dancer as she greets her guest, pours glasses of wine, tends to her child. She is able to talk of the events of Munich directly with no undue display of emotion. But as she talks she smokes one cigarette after another.

    She was in Munich to be with her husband. They went out one evening together and when they returned to her hotel they found the doors locked for the night. And so the fencing master and his wife decided to spend the night in his room in the Olympic Village. The Games were very happy and relaxed at this point. The German authorities bad been determined to erased the forbidding residual national image of Nazism. There was a lot of GemUuml;tlichkeit. Security police at the Olympic Village wore casual sporty uniforms so as not to remind people of the old Polizei. Curfews were easily broken and the athletes had no trouble slipping in and out of the Village or associating with athletes of the opposite sex. Mr. and Mrs. Spitzer got into the Village simply by walking in through the exit rather than the entrance. She remembers being momentarily alarmed by the ease with which they breached security. They did not even have difficulty at the checkpoint set up at the Israeli section.

    After Andre Spitzer had coached his fencers in the Olympics he took two days off to return to Holland with his wife. Their infant girl was being kept in a hospital to see if there was any reason for her excessive crying. She cried constantly. At the end of the two days, satisfied by the doctors that nothing was seriously wrong with the child, Andre Spitzer decided to go back to Munich to lend moral support to other members of the team who had yet to compete. Ankie remembers the difficulty they had getting to the train in time for Andre to go back to Munich. They actually missed the train and raced by car to the next station so he could pick it up. They waved goodbye and she never saw him again.

    The survivors of the 11 Israeli coaches and athletes murdered in Munich have organized a kind of association. Mrs. Spitzer belongs to this but she is somewhat apart from the other members and, from this independence of spirit, has said and done things that the other surviving families have not entirely approved of. She has, for instance, used her share of the $1 million presented to the families by the German government as seed funding for a fencing academy in Israel. She refuses to use any of the money for herself or her baby. In the past three years she has traveled a good deal to gather support for her fencing academy, which she sees as a source of supply for future fencers in international competition. Senators Hubert Humphrey and Jacob Javits are among the sponsors of the Memorial Sports Complex at the University of Haifa, of which the fencing academy will be a part.

    Ankie Spitzer is different too in refusing to consider her husband's death as a closed case. When she received the official death certificate from Germany the cause of death was listed as "murder" -- hardly the specific, pathological description one would expect from a coroner's office. The personal belongings of her husband had not been returned to her three months after his death, despite her repeated demands to the Kriminalpolizei in Munich. Only when she stormed into the office of the German ambassador to Israel and threatened to publicize her difficulties, were her husband's effects returned -- the very next day, in fact. When first informed of Andre's death she went to Munich and wanted to accompany the official Israeli physician to the Pathological Institute in order to identify the body. She was not permitted to do this. From these experiences -- the absurd autopsy report, the reluctance of the police to return her husband's clothes, their absolute refusal to allow her to identify her husband's body -- Ankie Spitzer feels that there may have been something in the nature of a cover-up. She has written four letters to the Pathological Institute in Munich to get a clarification of the coroner's findings. She has received no answer. She believes it possible that her husband was killed not by the Arabs but by the rifles of the German police. The helicopter in which Spitzer was held captive shows bullet holes in its underside. She doesn't know why that should be. She has requested but received no cooperation from the Israeli government, and feels if there is something to cover up, her own government is acting in complicity with the Germans.

    You get the impression that Ankie Spitzer is not entirely displeased to be known as one who makes trouble. For two weeks after her husband's death her baby and her brother and sister in Holland were kept in hiding by Israeli officials as a result of threats having been received against their lives. Ankie was not allowed to join them but was reunited with the child when she was flown back to Israel in a special El Al plane. The Defense Ministry suggested that the young widow and her infant stay at a military camp for their own safety, but Ankie refused. Instead, and with the consent of the ministry, they hid with friends for four months. When they returned home a night guard watched the house while patrol cars made checks during the days, looking for suspicious objects in Ankie's mail. Even today the Spitzer household is the beneficiary of Israeli security. It is not entirely a normal life.

    There is a wedding picture of the young couple on the wall. Who shall tell one or another of us how best to deal with our grief? Ankie Spitzer thinks about her fencing academy to be named after her husband. She takes care of her little girl. She could go back to Holland to live -- her mother and father want her to -- but she feels her child would suffer from too much sympathy. "Here she is not so special," Ankie says. "There are lots of little children whose fathers are dead. It is not unusual." She has friends and rather resolutely participates in the ordinary activities of a middle-class community, but she is determined that there will be some ceremony or some recognition on the part of the world that her husband and 10 others died in the Olympics four years ago. To the anger of the Israeli Olympic Committee she wrote to the International Olympic Committee demanding to know what its intentions were in this regard. Officials of the Israeli Olympic Committee feel that Mrs. Spitzer is impolitic and something of a nuisance. One official said, "Israel wants no crying, no special ceremony in Montreal. We are going to compete in the Games. That is all." Ankie Spitzer answers, "There will be something. The families are going to Montreal. There will be some ceremony if I have to create it all by myself."


    By daylight German police have surrounded the area. Armored cars patrol the streets. In Israel, the cabinet decides not to negotiate with the terrorists. German Foreign Ministry officials attempt to contact the heads of governments in the Arab world. None offers to mediate. None will intervene. By nightfall the German authorities permit the terrorists and their blindfolded hostages to enter two helicopters for a ride to an airbase 15 miles away. There a 727 waits, presumably ready for takeoff. There are eight terrorists; when the helicopters land at the airbase, some of them step out to check the 727. At this moment police sharpshooters ringing the airport open fire. Three Arabs are hit, a fourth takes cover and shoots out the control tower floodlights. Another tosses a grenade into one of the helicopters in which the bound hostages sit: it explodes and burns like a torch.

    The skirmish lasts one hour. When it is over all the Israeli hostages are dead. They were wrestlers, weight lifters, a track and field coach, a rifle team coach and a fencer. Five of the terrorists are dead. A German police officer is dead. And this event of the XXth Olympiad is concluded.


    IN 1936, ISRAEL was Palestine and under the British Mandate; a brilliant English officer, Captain Orde Wingate (later a commander in the Burmese theatre of World War II), was assigned to the Jewish underground militia, the Haganah. Wingate trained the elite squads in the art of guerilla night fighting and they had great success defending Jewish settlements against Arab attacks. Even more important, they became the cadre from which officers of the new Israeli army were chosen many years later. In Israel, Orde Wingate is a hero.

    There is a public sports facility on the Mediterranean Sea 20 miles north of Tel Aviv called The Wingate National Institute for Sports and Physical Education, and it is here that Israel's physical training teachers and coaches receive their schooling. The terrain and climate at Wingate is identical to that of Southern California. The sun is soft and beneficent and the rollers come into the beach with a pacific evenness. There are dormitories here, tennis courts, classrooms, dance studios, soccer fields, a gymnasium, an Olympic swimming pool and a cinder track. Beautifully laid out and landscaped, Wingate suggests the ultimate summer camp. Apart from the Israeli jet fighters that occasionally tear the sky overhead, there is little sense here of a nation whose survival is in question. Out on the track, Israel's premier athlete, Esther Roth, is training. The sun is shining. The grass inside the track is lush spring grass. Even from this distance it is clear that the young woman is a world-class athlete. She jogs and bursts into a sprint and walks with concentrated self-regard. But she is not humorless or aloof, and she exchanges gibes with the other people using the track, or doing field events on the grass.

    On the backstretch a coach is lining children up to do sprints. In a field nearby a strapping young man is flinging himself into the air over a bar. Roth calls to him and gets him to do sprints with her. They run across the grass from one curve of the track to the other, then turn and walk back, then turn and sprint, and then walk back again. They are incredibly fast and beautiful to watch. The boy is too big and sturdy to be a runner but his legs are long and he is in superb condition. He is able to make Roth go faster than she would if running alone. Roth is ideally built. All her musculature and power is concentrated in the buttocks, thighs and calves. The nonfunctional part of her running self, the trunk, is flat and lean. She has wide shoulders, a narrow waist. Her black hair is tied behind her neck in a ponytail.

    While Roth does her wind sprints on the grass, a thin blond man in a blue warmup suit is setting up hurdles on the cinders. He is Peter Roth, the star's husband. He was a gymnast but gave up his career before he married Roth and became her coach. His abilities are not entirely respected by the coaching community, but it is grudgingly conceded that in the two years or so he has been coaching his wife, he has learned everything he could learn about the theory of coaching. He has studied and, most important, he has gotten his wife to run again.

    In Munich in 1972, Esther Roth, then Esther Shahamurov, ran in the semifinals of the 100-meter dash and was edged out of the final by 1/100 of a second. She was entered in the 100-meter hurdles and up to the semifinals when the Black Septembrists stormed their way into the Olympic Village and subsequently took the loves of the 11 coaches and athletes, among them Esther's beloved mentor Amitzur Shapira, the man who discovered her when she was a 14-year-old kid running for a club in Tel Aviv. Roth withdrew from the semifinals and went back to Israel with her coach's body and did not put on a pair of track shoes for two years. It was the young man she married who persuaded her to run again, and for this the otherwise skeptical coaching establishment in Israel is grateful to him.

    In the Asian Games in Teheran in 1974 Roth won three gold medals -- in the 100- and 200-meter sprints and in the 100-meter hurdles. At the 1975 Regional Games in Seoul, Korea, she won two gold medals. Roth is the only Israeli who can possibly win something in the Olympics, yet the Olympic Committee people will be happy just to see her run in the finals. She will compete in the 100-meter dash and in the 100-meter hurdles. If she even reaches the finals she will have brought Israel to a point of achievement in sports that this 28-year-old country has never before accomplished.

    Dr. Alberto Ayalon walks down to the track to observe at close hand the more intense phase of Roth's daily training. Ayalon is a professor of biomechanics who teaches at Wingate. A pipe-smoking, mustached man in his 30s, he is here because Roth is having a problem with her time trials in the hurdles. Ayalon draws a diagram. They've discovered that off the mark Roth's reaction time is astonishingly fast but that recently in the stretch she has peaked too early. Ayalon says that her anaerobic efforts -- her internal energy resources -- flag prematurely. This is not characteristic of her. Ayalon and Peter Roth believe she is doing something wrong with her rear hurdling leg. Ayalon removes from its leather case an eight-lens Polaroid camera. When you take a picture with this camera it makes eight separate prints in sequence. Ayalon is going to try to photograph Roth's movements as she goes over a hurdle. Ayalon and Peter Roth pull a heavy metal scaffolding alongside the fourth gate and with his camera the professor climbs to the top of the scaffolding some 10 or 12 feet above the ground. Peter Roth in the meantime is running a wire alongside the track. The hurdles have been set up for a 50-meter trial, and beyond the last hurdle is a homemade wooden swingbar, also wired, which Roth will breast as if it were a tape. When her body makes contact with this swingbar a circuit will be broken and her time will be recorded.

    Back at the starting line Peter Roth has wired a starting gun to the chocks. He will be able to time the differential between the sound of the starting gun and the moment Roth's foot leaves the starting block. This is called her "reaction time." By means of further intricate wiring, he will be able to know the time she takes to get to each hurdle. This is called her "movement time." he will be able to chart a graph similar to the one shown by Ayalon visualizing the anaerobic capacity of Roth and depicting which points of her race are the strongest and which are the weakest.

    While all these preparations are being made, Roth is half-hurdling, running alongside the hurdles as a warmup and swinging one leg over each hurdle at less than top speed. Some children have gathered to watch not her, but all this electronic equipment that Peter Roth has devised to measure her performance.

    Finally, under the sun in this cool and beneficent spring afternoon, the gun fires and Roth is on her way. She is so incredibly fast that Ayalon on his scaffolding misses the shot almost entirely. She has gone by so quickly that of the eight prints she is visible only in about four. He retimes the camera and Roth comes back to the starting block. She is breathing deeply and here is some good-natured badinage between her and the coach and the professor of biomechanics who has not been able to catch her on film. Once again at her husband's command she kneels at the starting block. She places a foot on the rear block. With her fingers she measures off the proper position for her hands on the track. She nods and Peter Roth shouts a command. She lifts her knee from the cinders, poised now for the start. The gun cracks and she is off. Again she is past Ayalon on his scaffolding. The Polaroid extrudes the new print some time after Roth has crossed the finish line. It is a better print this time although somewhat blurred. Roth is seen in the entire eight prints from the beginning of the hurdle to the point at which her rear foot is passing over it. There is not enough detail, however, to make a meaningful analysis and Roth is asked to perform the run for the third time.

    Later Ayalon packs his camera. The experiment has not been entirely successful. In the meantime Peter Roth has been writing his numbers and drawing his graphs. Into the afternoon, Esther Roth dutifully and obediently runs and runs. With no real competition for her in Israel, her opponent must be the clock. The coach is no fool and understands the importance to his wife's physical and psychological training of this faceless technical opponent. Esther has only herself to race. He points out the excellent reaction time she has off the blocks, the less satisfactory times at the later hurdles. But Esther Roth has today run like the wind.

    During a lull in her practice she speaks of her 2-year-old son Yaron. She does not think about Munich, she says, because she cannot afford to. She has no fears for herself at Montreal, trusting the Canadian security. She is not certain she can win a medal, although she is as good as anybody in Western Europe. But there are sprinters and hurdlers in East Germany, Poland and Russia to whom she has been compared. She smiles and nods. "In Eastern Europe there are five women with the same time. Which of us will win?" She shrugs.

    Yuval Wischnitzer said that he runs for himself first and Israel second. And Roth? Her English is halting. She is dark-haired and has a classic Mediterranean complexion, large dark eyes and white teeth. "I run for Israel first," she says. "Not for me. I'm nothing."

    And then she is back hurdling again. It is late afternoon. The children are gone and she is alone now on the track. As she soars above each hurdle her husband's shouts echo over the field as he exhorts her to go faster, faster.

    Issue date: June 28, 1976

     


     
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