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A Sanctuary Violated

The saddest of all Olympic Games saw the flags of 126 countries at half staff under the Olympic flame, while rancor and controversy still raged

By Jerry Kirshenbaum

Issue date: September 18, 1972

Sports Illustrated Flashback The outrage could scarcely have been greater or the grief deeper, which only partially suggests the sway the Olympic Games hold on men's minds. Certainly, the awful events cast their shadow across sport. Even as rabbis within Munich's high-walled Jewish cemetery prepared the bodies of the 11 fallen Israelis for the journey home, the Olympics were resuming after a 24-hour interruption. One of the first competitions following the delay matched Rumania against Hungary in team handball, which, like murder, was new at these Games. The Rumanians won 20-14, but Nicolae Nedef, their coach, could not rejoiced. "The game doesn't seem to matter so much," he said.

Similar sentiments were voiced often as the Games of the XXth Olympiad wound to their melancholy conclusion. Five years of elaborate planning by the West German people had been undone, and from this bitter irony flowed others. The Games were meant to erase memories of German militarism, yet the Olympic site was suddenly aswarm with armored cars and, surrealistically, Polizei in sweat suits carrying submachine guns. As in a nightmare, Jewish blood was spilled again on German soil, although this time the Germans were cast as would-be rescuers. And, in the end, a $650 million stage built for sport became instead a platform for calamity.

 
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
  • Calamity struck because there was no way of controlling which madmen or jesters might choose to strut out from the wings. A youth in a flowing white robe stood outside the tent-roofed Olympic Stadium holding a sign -- NO NATIONS, MANY CULTURES -- yet his brotherly message had been mocked even before the Games began when the threat of boycott by African and U.S. blacks led the International Olympic Committee to expel Rhodesia. Later, demonstrators, wielding iron bars, battled police for three days outside Munich's massive, sooty Palace of Justice in what Bavarian officials called a leftist plot to disrupt the Olympics. Finally, providing what alone would have been controversy enough at a less troubled Games, the IOC drummed Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett out of future competition -- meaning the 1,600-meter relay -- after they chatted and were otherwise disrespectful while The Star-Spangled Banner played following their one-two finish in the 400 meters on Thursday.

    The IOC found the behavior of the American runners "disgusting," possibly because of the immediacy of the horror that began when Arab terrorists scaled the eight-foot fence surrounding the Olympic Village shortly before dawn the previous Tuesday. For 20 hours attention had focused on the three-story building at 31 Connollystrasse, a street named for a Connolly other than Hal or Olga -- one James B., a triple jumper who in 1896 won the U.S.'s first Olympic gold medal. As cameras zeroed in on the hangmanlike visage of a terrorist moving about a balcony in a stocking mask, the idea took hold that it was not only the lives of the Israelis but somehow also the very future of the Olympics that was at stake.

    Except for the grim faces of reporters and the curious who collected on the grassy slopes surrounding the village, the scene could have passed for one more well-attended Olympic event. Instead of timing races, spectators consulted their watches to keep track of each deadline extension -- there were four in all -- the terrorists granted. Even after news of the attack was made known, the Olympics, astonishingly, had gone on, and the organizers did not call a halt to competition until 4 p.m., almost 12 hours after the first two Olympians had been murdered.

    Despite the efforts at business as usual, it was glaringly clear that sport was not immune to violence. Even such an apolitical performer as Mark Spitz suddenly was vulnerable. As a Jew and the athletic hero of the Olympics, Spitz seemed an inviting target for terrorists, a thought that occurred to the U.S. Olympic officials rather late in the chronology of events. Spitz and his coaches had been permitted to leave their Olympic Village quarters unguarded and ignorant of the attack at 9 a.m Tuesday, four hours after the guerrillas struck. Only when the Americans arrived at a press conference elsewhere on the Olympic grounds did they learn of the tragedy. "They'd just take me hostage -- they wouldn't kill me, would they?" Spitz asked worriedly. Eventually, five guards were posted at Spitz' room, and he left Munich 24 hours ahead of schedule.

    On Wednesday morning, when athletes were to have begun the decathlon, 80,000 people filled the stadium for a memorial service. Olympians from the U.S. and other lands, including surviving Israelis in yarmulkes bearing the Olympic symbol, massed on the infield. The solemn occasion was marred by the absence of Soviet athletes and by the bumbling speech of 84-year-old Avery Brundage, who was in his last days as IOC president. "The Games must go on," he thundered to great applause, and he called the murder of the Israelis one of "two savage attacks" on the Olympics, the other being the black African pressure that resulted in Rhodesia's expulsion. His coupling of the two events aroused criticism, and he later had to issue an apology, regretting "any misinterpretation" of his words. Not Brundage but the reaction of the crowd bothered Asher Lubelski, a spectator and one of Germany's remaining 32,000 Jews. "The people came not in memory of the Israelis," he said. "They came to see if the Olympics would go on."

    The Israelis put their dead aboard an El Al jet which took them home on the even of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but not before Joseph Inbar, president of the Israeli Olympic Committee, said, "Enough blood has flowed to end the Games." Egypt, Kuwait and Syria, apparently fearing reprisals, dropped out, and some Norwegian and Dutch athletes left in protest. But most agreed with the Soviet long jumper, Igor Ter-Ovanesian, who said, "It is terrible what happened. I don't feel like competing now. But it is good the Games continue. Terrorists should not be able to disrupt the Olympics."

    The life-goes-on attitude was at once comforting and unsettling. The Olympics were canceled during both World Wars, but the Games were held despite Korea in 1952 and Hungary and Suez in 1956. In Mexico City the Games began only a few days after at least 50 students -- other reports put the toll closer to 300 -- were killed by government bullets during a massive political demonstration. German and IOC concern over the fate of the Israeli athletes was unquestionably genuine, but it was coupled with an almost equal concern for the fate of the Games.

    In carrying on, the men who ran the Games doubtlessly feared that to do otherwise might doom the Olympic movement. As Munich wearily prepared for the closing ceremonies, a pageant in which a military band was scheduled to serenade Brundage with "For he's a jolly good fellow," the 1976 Games must suddenly have seemed a dubious prize to Montreal, where one can almost imagine an Olympic Village surrounded by barbed wire and armed sentries to guard against firebombing Quebec nationalists. On the other hand, it was possible to hope that the violence in Munich was an aberration and to seek comfort in the fact that until the attack occurred, Israeli and Arab athletes had competed and lived virtually side by side.

    By the weekend the Israeli quarters had become a shrine of sorts, and West German President Gustav Heinemann was among those who placed a wreath at the door. A block away dwelt the Lebanese, one Arab group that stayed on after the tragedy, a decision that Assistant Delegation Chief Emile Nassar discussed one afternoon. "We contacted the Prime Minister," said Nassar. "He advised us to do whatever the spirit of sport told us to do." Never has that spirit been more difficult to define than it was last week in Munich.

    Issue date: September 18, 1972

     


     
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