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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Munich Olympics Tragedy Still Resonates

A Sept. 5, 1972 file photo shows a member of the Palestinian terrorist group who seized members of the Israeli Olympic team at their quarters at the Munich Olympic Village as the person appears with a hood over his face on the balcony of the village building where the hostages were held. (AP)


I remember this like it was yesterday. It was Sept. 5, 1972, and I was watching the Summer Olympic coverage on ABC and I heard this: “The peace of what had been called the serene Olympics was shattered just before dawn this morning, about 5 o’clock, when Arab terrorists armed with submachine guns, faces blackened, climbed a fence, went to the headquarters of the Israeli team and immediately killed one man. They’ve been holding 14 others hostage since then and the latest report is that one more has been killed.” That was sportscaster Jim McKay with the news that would dominate the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

As the Olympics begin in London, NBC will remember the 1972 games with a moment of silence, something the International Olympic Committee has declined to do. 40 years later the voices from those Olympics still ring in my ears. I remain haunted by those hooded figures on the balconies in the Olympic village.

Kenny Moore was on the U.S. Track and Field Team. His roommate was another marathon runner named Frank Shorter. “Frank heard something that sounded like a door slamming,” Moore told me a few years ago. “He felt later that that was a gunshot when he put things together.” Next, there was a pounding on the door to the room the US coaches were in on the first floor. The U.S. track coach Bill Bowerman opened it and saw an Israeli athlete, a race walker named Shaul Ladany, who told him some of his fellow athletes had been shot.

The Palestinians were members of a group called Black September. They demanded the release of more than 200 prisoners being held in Israel along with safe passage to Egypt. Negotiations dragged on as the games went on. The competition wasn’t suspended until more than 10 hours after the first reports of the crisis. Eventually the Palestinians and their hostages were taken by bus to a nearby airbase, but then a plan by German authorities to ambush the kidnappers went horribly wrong.

A gun fight ensued and eleven of the Israeli athletes were left dead, along with four of the Palestinians and one police officer.

“Until then, and I was 28, I had believed the Olympics immune somehow to the threats of the larger of the world,” said Kenny Moore. “It was an illusion, but it it had been a hell of a strong illusion and it rocked me personally to have that shattered. I remember feeling what’s the use.” Moore’s friend, a Dutch 5,000 meter runner named Jos Hermens, felt the same way. He went home without competing even though there had been no word yet that the games would continue. They did, after a memorial service at the Olympic Stadium.

The U.S. coach Bill Bowerman told his athletes he felt the games should go on because, as Moore related it to me, Olympians had laid down their arms to compete in games through the centuries. Bowerman said they knew there was more honor in outrunning a man than killing him. “One by one,” said Moore, “we came not only to see the truth in that but also to feel it. I remember Frank (Shorter) saying we have to spread the word by performance that barbarism only makes Olympians stronger. We have to say this is scared as I get and let’s go run.”

On Sunday, September 10, 1972, Frank Shorter won the gold medal in the Olympic marathon. Kenny Moore finished 4th.


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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