SI Vault
Alexander Wolff
August 26, 2002
Thirty years later, the hostage drama that left 11 Israeli Olympians dead seems even more chilling and offers grim reminders to today's security experts
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August 26, 2002

When The Terror Began

Thirty years later, the hostage drama that left 11 Israeli Olympians dead seems even more chilling and offers grim reminders to today's security experts

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Indeed, the police shot as much in the figurative as the literal dark. They hadn't merely been kept ignorant of how many terrorists to expect; no one had told them precisely where the helicopters would be landing and hence what might be the optimal positions to take up. "The helicopters landed directly in front of me and thus exactly in the line of fire of the shooters on the tower," the policeman behind the concrete parapet told the inquiry of the prosecutor's office. "Had I known they were landing where they actually did, I would have chosen another position."

Finally, the policemen had no two-way radios with which to coordinate an operation that had to take out the commandos virtually at a stroke. When Wolf, from his post in the tower, gave the order to fire, only three gunmen were in a position to hear him; the other two, who were to begin shooting when they noticed the first three doing so, found themselves in the line of fire of their comrades and had to take cover. So in effect three riflemen were left to take out the eight terrorists. That trio's shooting was only enough to disable three of the fedayeen immediately and to alert the other five that the day's negotiations had been a ruse.

In their negligence suit the families of the victims charged that saving the hostages became subordinate to Brundage's desire to remove the crisis from the Olympic Village. Wegener suggests as much. "The Village," he says, "was like a church, a cathedral." It was almost as if the Germans had said, There's no way we can save the hostages. Let's at least save the Games.

Even as the shootout continued at the airport, a rumor had cruelly mutated into fact. At 11 p.m. Conrad Ahlers, a spokesman for the West German federal government, told reporters that all the hostages had been liberated. The wire services sent this misinformation around the world, and Israeli newspapers hit the streets on Sept. 6 repeating it in banner headlines. Even Golda Meir went to bed believing the Germans had freed the nine captives.

On the morning of the 6th the grim truth became known. "Until today, we always thought of Dachau as being near Munich," said Israeli interior minister Josef Burg. "From now on, unfortunately, we'll say that Munich is near Dachau."

Willi Daume, the president of the Munich organizing committee, at first wanted the remainder of the Games called off, but Brundage and others talked him out of it. "I too questioned the decision to continue," says Vogel, the former mayor of Munich, "but over time I came to believe that we couldn't let the Olympics come to a halt from the hand of terrorism."

So, after a memorial service on Sept. 6, the Carefree Games resumed. Many of the 80,000 people who filled the Olympic Stadium for West Germany's soccer match with Hungary carried noisemakers and waved flags, while authorities did nothing to intervene in the name of decorum. Yet when several spectators unfurled a banner reading 17 DEAD, ALREADY FORGOTTEN? security sprang into action. Officials seized the sign and expelled the offenders from the grounds.

It's part of the protocol of every Olympics that organizers shall publish an official report of great scope and heft. Munich's is Teutonically comprehensive. It praises Mark Spitz for his feats in the pool and Olga Korbut for hers on the mats, and the informal Olympic Village for its contribution to the relaxed spirit of the Games. And it recounts the atrocities perpetrated on members of the Israeli delegation in dispassionate, mostly exculpatory prose. Then it adds this grotesque rationalization: "After the terrible events of September 5,1972, it was once again the atmosphere of the Olympic Village which contributed a great deal to calming down and preserving peace among the athletes."

"This will be a very secure place"

Today most of the apartment block at 31 Connollystrasse is filled with middle-class Germans going about the banal business of living. Well-tended flowers spill from windowsills. A young girl prances off with her bicycle. A memorial plaque by the main doorway is in temporary storage, but it will return in the spring, after renovations are complete on the pedestrian-only street.

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