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."