SI Vault
 
BUZZ BEFORE THE CURTAIN
Jerry Kirshenbaum
August 28, 1972
Chill rains splattered against Munich's mind-boggling $60 million Olympic tent roof last week, leaving bundled-up visitors to wonder whether this might not actually be the Winter Games that were about to start. But no amount of harsh weather—or controversy—could dim Chancellor Willy Brandt's hope that the athletic spotlight would illuminate a "new and different Germany." Munich's broad boulevards and cobbled alleys were dressed up with Olympic banners that managed to appear festive even in the rain, while the city's steeply gabled buildings glistened with fresh paint. One of the few places that still seemed austere was the grand but antiquated Vier Jahreszeiten Hotel, where Avery Brundage was staying.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 28, 1972

Buzz Before The Curtain

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Chill rains splattered against Munich's mind-boggling $60 million Olympic tent roof last week, leaving bundled-up visitors to wonder whether this might not actually be the Winter Games that were about to start. But no amount of harsh weather—or controversy—could dim Chancellor Willy Brandt's hope that the athletic spotlight would illuminate a "new and different Germany." Munich's broad boulevards and cobbled alleys were dressed up with Olympic banners that managed to appear festive even in the rain, while the city's steeply gabled buildings glistened with fresh paint. One of the few places that still seemed austere was the grand but antiquated Vier Jahreszeiten Hotel, where Avery Brundage was staying.

Preparations for the Games of the XXth Olympiad had been predictably thorough, but some sort of New Germany, if not necessarily the one Brandt spoke of, was indicated by a few lapses in Teutonic efficiency. In the crush of traffic at nearby Riem airport, Lufthansa was proving just as skilled at misplacing baggage as any U.S. airline, and security arrangements among the competitors who moved daily into the Olympic Village went awry. Because of faulty latches on ID badges, a brisk market was developing in lost and stolen credentials. Then there were the ubiquitous press information booths, all of them linked to three Siemens computers. These were being fed 500 million pieces of data, and journalists' queries about Olympians—birthplaces, hobbies and the like—were happily answered by Fr�uleins primly buttoned up in dirndls of Bavarian blue. Eager as the hostesses were to oblige, their computers were not programmed to respond to the most pressing question of all—the threatened boycott by African blacks.

The boycott movement came as almost a ritual reminder of the political impact of the Olympics, but the Munich Games otherwise stood, as they were meant to, in sharp contrast with the last ones held on German soil, the pageant that Hitler staged for his own glorification in 1936. For the money—$650 million—Munich has itself the most computerized, televised and technologically innovative Olympics ever. Races on the artificially surfaced track will be timed not with stopwatches but photo-finish cameras, and for the shot-puts and other throwing events tape measures have been rendered obsolete by triangular infra-red prism rays that do the job from afar.

These wonders will unfold only when the competition begins, but crowds of sightseers were already enjoying the parklike landscaping that has blossomed on the old Munich airstrip and war-rubble dump. As for the buildings, the object was to achieve human rather than heroic proportions. One result is the pancake-shaped Olympic stadium, which seats a cozy 48,000—with standing room for another 32,000—and is discreetly sunk in the ground.

The unifying landmark of the Olympic site is the free-form cable-and-acrylic glass roof gracefully suspended above sections of the main stadium, sports hall and swimming arena. The roof, its price tag exceeding that of the entire Rome Olympics of 1960, is supposed to reduce glare for color TV. German athletes who ran in the stadium a couple of weeks ago complained that the roof created problems of heat and wind, but U.S. trackmen had not yet competed there and their opinions were therefore of the purely esthetic sort expressed by Sprinter Eddie Hart, who said, "This place is just out of sight."

As time passed, doubts were raised whether Hart or many other black athletes would stay around to enjoy it. The threatened boycott was directed at white-governed Rhodesia, which last competed in 1964 under the British crown. After Rhodesia's break with Britain in 1965, a U.N. squeeze on passports effectively kept the country out of the Mexico City Games in 1968. South Africa, too, was barred, but by the IOC itself after a threatened boycott by black African and Communist-bloc countries.

South Africa remains an Olympic outlaw, but Rhodesia, which has blacks on its national team, was okayed by the IOC last September in a compromise proposed by black African representatives. The Rhodesians could compete, as they had in 1964, if they came as British subjects. Apparently, the black Africans felt the Rhodesians would refuse to be identified as British, but that assumption proved wrong when a 44-member team, including six black trackmen, arrived at the Olympic Village and ran up the old Southern Rhodesian Hag while a band played God Sine the Queen. Ossie Plaskitt, chief of the Rhodesian delegation, considers the terms of the September agreement fulfilled. "We came here as sportsmen," he said from the complex in the village that Rhodesia shared in virtual isolation with Portugal. "We have no distinction in sport whether a man is pink, white or red."

None of this satisfied the governments of black Africa, which started issuing the ultimatum. If Rhodesia competed they would withdraw. After Kenya and Ethiopia joined in, blacks on the U.S. track team pledged somewhat ambiguously to take a "united stand with our African brothers." American officials, claiming that reporters chasing the story were "molesting and harassing" athletes, urged the German organizers to ban the press from the Olympic Village but later okayed a statement to the IOC asking for a reappraisal of Rhodesia's status. Meanwhile, American, African and Caribbean blacks traveled 65 miles to a pre-Olympic meet in the quiet Bavarian town of Kempten, then staged a dress rehearsal for the Olympics by refusing to compete when the Rhodesians came onto the track.

The press and U.S. officials alike singled out Lee Evans, world-record holder and Olympic champion at 400 meters and a veteran of the turbulent '68 Games, as the ringleader of the American blacks, but Evans preferred the role of soldier to general. "I don't want to make any individual comment," he said. "This is a unity thing." Unity was also the theme of Motsapi Moorosi, the only Olympic athlete from the tiny African kingdom of Lesotho. "I'll be brokenhearted if I can't compete," said the one-man team, who was attracting attention in Munich because of his shaved skull and raspberry-colored kobo, a native shawl. "I've been away from my wife and kids, training, for three months. But I cannot be the only black African to run. If the others go, I must, too."

The pivotal country was Kenya. As the continent's No. 1 athletic power, its withdrawal could easily start a chain reaction, and President Jomo Kenyatta vowed to pull his athletes out if Rhodesia stayed. Kenyatta is a proud, headstrong man. as is the 84-year-old Brundage, who accused the black African governments of "interfering" with their Olympic teams in violation of IOC rules. There the matter stood. The black Africans, through last September's miscalculation, had brought on much of the trouble themselves, but Rhodesia's reversion to colonial status for athletic purposes only could not have been more transparent. As a sports writer for the Rhodesian Herald put it. "You can be sure most of our men don't give a damn about the Union Jack."

Continue Story
1 2