There Have Been Shootings in the Night
The author, a U.S. distance runner who five days later finished a gratifying fourth in the marathon, tells what the terrible day of murder and hostages was like for an athlete
By Kenny Moore
Issue date: September 18, 1972
I was torpid, just out of bed, ready to jog on a humid, glaring day. The Olympic Village gate was locked. A guard, dressed in silly turquoise, said, "There have been shootings in the night. You cannot leave."
I started back to my room. On the way I met my teammate, hammer thrower George Frenn, whose parents were born in Lebanon. He told me Arab terrorists had broken into the Israeli quarters, shot two people and taken others hostage. George was seething. "I hate lunatics," he said.
I lived in an apartment on the fifth floor of the U.S. building with Frank Shorter, Steve Savage, Jon Anderson and Dave Wottle, all middle- or long-distance runners. Frank was on our terrace, staring at police lines, ambulances and newsmen assembled under cover near the Israeli dorm, 150 yards away.
"I haven't felt this way since Kennedy was killed," he said. "Imagine those poor guys over there. Every five minutes a psycho with a machine gun says, 'Let's kill 'em now,' and someone else says, 'No, let's wait a while.' How long could you stand that?"
We took turns on the terrace, plucking seed from a fennel plant there and grinding them in our palms. Below, people played chess or Ping-Pong. The trading of Olympic pins continued. Athletes sunbathed by the reflecting pool. It seemed inappropriate, but what was one supposed to do? The scratchy, singsong notes of European police sirens sounded incessantly. Rumors leaped and died. There were 26 hostages. There were seven. The terrorists were killing a man every two hours. They were on the verge of surrender.
At 3:30 p.m. I phoned a friend in the press village.
"Have you heard?" he asked. "The Games are stopped."
"Stopped? You mean postponed or canceled?"
"Postponed for now. But they say it may be impossible to start them again."
I went back to the room, where my wife Bobbie was waiting, and I wept. I experienced level after level of grief: for my own event, the marathon, those years of preparation now useless; for the dead and doomed Israelis; and for the violated sanctuary of the Games.
In Mexico and here the village had been a refuge, admittedly imperfect, from a larger, seedier world in which individuals and governments refused to adhere to any humane code. For two weeks every four years we direct our kind of fanaticism into the essentially absurd activities of running and swimming and being beautiful on a balance beam. Yet even in the rage of competition we keep from hurting each other, and thereby demonstrate the meaning of civilization. I shook and cried as that illusion, the strongest of my life, was shattered.
In the evening Bobbie and I walked around. We met Ron Hill, the British marathoner. Ron was agitated. "Why should this stop the Games? It's all political, isn't it? Let the police seal the thing off. The rest of the town isn't affected. I want that marathon to stay on Saturday."
"They're talking about a one-day postponement," I said. "Surely one day shouldn't matter."
"It does to me," he said.
Tom Dooley, one of our walkers, responded, "All political? Those people are just politically dead?"
Hailu Ebba, the Ethiopian 1,500-meter runner, said, "I have led a calm life. I can't believe those people are in that building and could get killed. They could shut this whole place down. Running is not that important."
At 10 p.m. Bobbie and I decided to spend the night away from the village. On our way to the front gate, the only one where exit or entry was permitted, we met John Carlos. John, often strident, now was muted, thoughtful. He shook his head. "People were upset over what I did in 1968," he said, "but I just expressed my feelings. I didn't hurt anybody. Now what are they going to say? Can they tell the difference?"
At the gate, the guards were now admitting no one, nor permitting anyone to leave. Hoover Wright, one of our assistant coaches, and his wife were also trying to get out. We looked at each other in confusion. Someone who knew him shouted from the crowd: "Hoover, there's going to be shooting! There's going to be shooting!"
We turned to check other exits and met Lee Evans, who said it was impossible. We went back, through the rising furor, to the room.
After a few minutes Dave Wottle came in from, to our amazement, a run. "I went out the back gate," he said. He had covered a three-mile loop and returned to the rear of the village, where he found his way barred by ropes. He jumped the ropes and then the fence. "I heard some guards yelling 'halt!' but I just waved without looking. After 50 yards I came to another group of guards. One recognized me. He said, 'It's Wottle,' and they laughed." When Dave looked back, he saw five guards returning guns to their holsters. "If I had known they were so jumpy, I'd have walked around out there all night."
Then it seemed over. Anderson and Savage, who had been kept outside the main gate for an hour, came in and told how helicopters had taken terrorists and hostages to an airport. The late news said the Israelis had been rescued. We went to bed, shaken by the prolonged anxiety but relieved.
We awoke to the final horror. The first newspapers said, "Sixteen Dead."
I walked to the memorial service. Russian soccer players were practicing on a field beside the stadium. Concession stands were open, smelling of sauerkraut. The program was long-winded in four languages. The crowd applauded when Brundage said the Games would go on.
"The Games should go on," said Tom Dooley, "and they will. But for the wrong reasons. The Germans don't want any hitches in their organization. There are the financial considerations. Those people who applauded just want to see who will win the 5,000 and the hell with the rest."
"What are the right reasons?" I asked.
"Just one. To stay together. Who wins or loses now is ridiculously unimportant, considered against these men's deaths. But we have to stay together."
"Can we go to future Olympics, knowing this might happen again?"
He was quiet for a moment. "I don't know. Maybe Olympians will have to be like the early Christians now. We'll have to conduct our events in catacombs in quiet forests."
Issue date: September 18, 1972