Last week's tragedy stirred a 1972 Olympian to realize anew that, for the athletes, the games must go on
By Kenny Moore
Issue date: August 5, 1996
In Munich 24 years ago, Frank Shorter was the only one in our fifth-floor apartment in the Athletes' Village who heard the shots. They brought him from fitful sleep to apprehensive alertness. A few minutes later there was a pounding on the door of the coaches' room on the ground floor. U.S. track coach Bill Bowerman groggily answered it.
Before him stood Shaul Ladany, an Israeli race walker. "Can I come in?" Ladany asked, oddly, distractedly.
"What for?" growled Bowerman.
"The Arabs are in our building," said Ladany.
"Well," said Bowerman, "push them out."
"They have guns," said Ladany, who had escaped through a window when other Israelis had shouted an alarm. "Two people are dead."
Thus, as Bowerman reached to draw Ladany into the safety of his room, the coach became the first of us to know that everything had changed, that we were to be actors in the modern Olympics' great loss of innocence. At dawn we learned that after storming the building the terrorists had killed two and taken nine coaches and athletes hostage. From the balcony of our apartment, which Shorter and I shared with fellow U.S. runners Jon Anderson, Mike Manley, Steve Savage and Dave Wottle, we could see tanks, troops and emergency vehicles assembling 150 yards away, behind the blocky building that housed the Israelis, among others. We took turns on our terrace all day, nervously plucking seeds from a fennel plant that grew there and grinding them into our palms, keeping vigil.
Shorter agonized quietly. "Imagine how it must be for them in there," he said as the singsong European police sirens sounded. "Some maniac with a machine gun saying, 'Let's kill 'em now,' and another one saying, 'No, let's wait awhile.' How long could you stand that?"
In mid-afternoon, after competition had continued as scheduled, word came: The Games had been stopped. The IOC would not say when, or even whether, they would resume. In that uncertainty, we experienced level after level of grief. I remember weeping for my own event, the marathon, for years of preparation that seemed wasted, and for the violated sanctuary of the Games. It truly did not hit me until then, in my 29th year, that the Olympics were not somehow immune to every threat to which the larger world was subject.
I was not alone. Steve Prefontaine, the 5,000-meter runner, raged at the terrorists' blindness, at what, to him, was their sheer, malignant nerve. "These are our Games," he cried. "Anyone who would murder us for some demented cause just proves himself incapable of understanding what we do."
The terrorists were demanding a helicopter to carry them and their hostages to a plane that would take them out of the country. Negotiations went on into darkness. At 10, I tried to escape the Village and discovered shouting crowds of athletes and officials being turned back from the gates. We were sealed in.
Through rising furor, I went back to the apartment. From the balcony we watched a flight of helicopters suddenly drop down and land near where the standoff was. The cacophony of their engines echoing off the concrete buildings was such that we, spooked, thought it was machine-gun fire.
Within the hour the helicopters lifted off again, on their way to Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base, where a plane was waiting, and much else. They disappeared into a cloudy sky that I remember as roiled and reddened by searchlights. Shorter watched the sky long after the rest of us had finished our prayers for the Israelis' safe passage. "You know, Kenny," he said with shaken softness, "I don't think it's over."
In the morning we learned the final horror. The Germans had misjudged the number of terrorists. There had been too few police marksmen waiting at Fürstenfeldbruck. When they opened fire, one unhurt terrorist set off a grenade.
I awakened to see Anderson holding a German newspaper with photos of a burned-out helicopter. Prefontaine translated the headline for me: SIXTEEN DEAD. That was when he said, "They could load us all on a plane right now to take us home, and I'd go." He heard no dissent.
There was a memorial service for our fellow Olympians in the main stadium, where IOC president Avery Brundage announced that the Games would go on, after a 24-hour postponement. Our response to that, individually and severally, defines us still.
Shorter and I were in the marathon. We knew it was impossible to protect us on the route. We knew also that the British team had received death threats from the IRA, a case of a second set of terrorists piggybacking on the first. Yet there was never any question that we would run. "We have to not let this detract from our performance," said Shorter, "because that's what they want."
I can't speak for Frank, but I know I ran the 1972 Olympic marathon expressly measuring my own suffering against that of my fellow Olympians. Every time I would get a stitch in my side, or a cramp running up a hamstring, I would ask myself if this passing ache were comparable to what they felt in that phosphorous conflagration. That settled, I would run on, chastened.
Shorter won. I was fourth. We ran well, and in that we were emblematic of the essential lesson of all athletics: Everyone suffers. It's what you do with your suffering that lifts and advances us, as swimmers, softball players and gymnasts. As a species.
When former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young was asked to respond to the Centennial Park bombing, he pointed out that the rest of the world has been enduring such events for years, and then quoted Martin Luther King Jr., who said, "Violence is the language of the unheard." Yes, but it's a language of obscenity. The terrorists of 1972 were fanatics, prepared, perhaps even content, to die for their cause. They were in some ways the mirror image of Olympians, except from their suffering they brought forth death. They had surrendered to the eternal cycle of violence in which the sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons. They were every victim become destroyer.
We were fortunate enough to know better. We were successors to the great moral advance made by the Greeks in 776 B.C. when they came to understand that there is more honor in outrunning a man than in killing him, when they so sanctified the Games that they would lay down their arms during the sacred truce of Olympia and grant participants free passage through warring states. Our answer to the attack in 1972 was 2,748 years old: performance, transforming performance.
When he heard the news of the Atlanta bombing, Shorter called me. "On that balcony in Munich," he said, "it was like, Someone is doing this to them over there. But in Atlanta, now, it is a different kind of fear. The bomb was set in the public precincts. The feeling is that we're all the target now."
Yet the IOC, ACOG and the White House never seriously considered stopping the Atlanta Games. "It was a slow process in Munich," said Shorter. "The day we watched as the hostages were held and the day off for the memorial service, we went through the stages humans must go through in times of brutal stress: from denial to anger, to grief, to resolve. It's like Atlanta learned from that. This time officials went straight to affirming that the Games will go on."
As did the athletes. "It's difficult to focus on goals when someone is trying to destroy the Olympic spirit," said Gail Devers, after winning the women's 100 in an almost defiant fashion. "That's what they're trying to do, and I'm not going to let them."
I could hear echoes of '72 in the reaction of U.S. judoka Jimmy Pedro, a bronze medalist in the 157-pound division: "I worked 19 years to be here. The athletes won't leave, we won't stop. Of course we'll go on."
The striking thing was his tone, so offhand, so expectant that everyone in the world will understand that his -- ours -- is a perfectly obvious course, to turn pain into performance. But of course they don't all understand, or we wouldn't have our latest dead, or children torn and broken by explosives detonated, incomprehensibly, to make some point. What Shorter said on that Munich balcony was and remains true. It's not over, not until all the cycles of violence are broken and man is perfected, which isn't going to be any Olympiad soon.
So the Olympian thing to do is simply to spread the word that barbarism only makes Olympians stronger. "We've got to talk about the risks," says Shorter. "Know the percentages, so people can't deny the risks, but then we have to go forward, because to surrender here is to surrender all. We have to say to ourselves, as a society, what we said before that marathon back in Munich. We have to say, 'This is as scared as I get. Now let's go run.'"
Issue date: August 5, 1996