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After the Nightmare
E.L Doctorow
July 25, 1994
In this SI Classic, three Israeli athletes describe the shattering effect the tragedy of Munich had on them
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July 25, 1994

After The Nightmare

In this SI Classic, three Israeli athletes describe the shattering effect the tragedy of Munich had on them

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This particular event of the XX Olympics, 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 have 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.

He runs distances from 1,500 to 10,000 meters. The Israeli 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, the committee members 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 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 the 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 exhilaration of his best speed.

So there is this condition of Yuval Wischnitzer's life—the solitude of the runner inconstant critical relation to himself.

Beyond that, he endures the peculiar isolation of a world-class runner in Israel, a country that 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 its 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 discourage 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 from 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 soccer 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.

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