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 F�rstenfeldbruck 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 F�rstenfeldbruck. 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.