The five-time Grammy winner looks back on his career, ahead of receiving the country's highest civilian honor.
American long-distance runner Frank Shorter heard the first shots when Palestinian terrorists broke into the quarters where Israeli athletes were sleeping at the Olympics in Munich, West Germany in 1972.
By the time the hostage crisis ended the next day, 11 Israeli athletes were dead.
A few days later, after a debate among the U.S. athletes about whether they should stay and complete the Olympics, Shorter won the final event of the Olympics, the marathon.
He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to reflect on the concerns about terrorism as the Winter Olympics begin in Sochi, Russia.
On athletes in Sochi worrying about potential danger
“Now the athletes can decide beforehand how they are going to deal with it, whereas we had to decide right at that moment, pretty much after the memorial service, just how we were gonna go on. But my feeling is the mental attitude you take is the same. Really, when you get down to it, as an elite athlete, you’ve developed an ability to focus on your event — to turn the switch on and turn the switch off, as I put it. And you also realize that in that circumstance that with all that chaos, and here the possibility of chaos in Sochi, the only thing over which you have any control are your own thoughts.”
On his decision to compete after the Munich attacks
“The next day when we woke up to find out that everyone had died at the airport, really the collective feeling was we’re all going home, because nothing’s worth human life. And so it’s over, the games are over. But it wasn’t a feeling of having been deprived of something, it was more it was more a realization somehow that everyone was coming to in this state of shock. But what happened then is, as we continued to process this over the next day, and then when they had the memorial service in the stadium the next night, on the way back from that memorial service, I think that’s when — at least for me — that feeling of no, no you can’t give in, because if you do, the terrorists win. And that’s when I had this discussion with Kenny Moore about how for me, I was going to run the race, and I was not going to think about what could happen because to me the only place in the Olympics — and I said this to Kenny — the only other place in the Olympics that terrorists can do something now with all the security heightened is out on the Olympic marathon course. And I’m not going to think about it, because if I do – they win. And I ran the entire race, and I never thought about it.”
On the Boston Marathon bombings triggering memories for him
“It does trigger the memories. Because I was actually just going into a store across the street, into the store that had the security camera that showed where the second bomb was. And I was trying to take a shortcut over to the television trucks I was helping with the broadcast, and I heard the bomb and I knew right away what it was, I did. I just said oh no, oh no. And then I went into the store to go out the back because I knew there would be other people coming in behind me. And I heard the second bomb, which was right across the street, and then all I could think of was the reason I turned into the store — the crowd had stopped and my gauge of making no progress was a child being held on the shoulders of a man about 10 feet ahead of me, and I went into the store, and that bomb went off and all I could think of was that child on the shoulders of this person, and my thought was oh no, oh no not again.”
On how the response was different at the marathon bombing
“You would think that it might be panic in the theater when someone says ‘fire’ — absolutely the opposite. Everyone was walking slowly, purposefully, some people were very upset, crying, a certain amount of hysteria, they were being comforted, and everyone was just sort of flowing out the back, away from this danger. And to me, right then, I knew in a way something was different about how people responded. And then you saw what went on during the rest of the day, as people were running to the victims rather than try to run away from the scene, and I think it that respect it’s changed.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Everyone knows the threat of terrorism is hanging over the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. And it's reminding many of you of another Olympic Games. Walter Wagenhalls(ph) is one who wrote and said talk about the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, West Germany. Get Frank Shorter; he was there.
Well, we did get Frank, and we are going to take a look back to 1972. If you were watching on TV, you heard this on ABC from the late anchor Jim McKay.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM)
JIM MCKAY: Arab terrorists, armed with submachine guns, faces blackened, a couple of them disguised as guards or as trash men in the Olympic Village, climbed the fence, went to the headquarters of the Israeli team and immediately killed one man, Moshe Weinberg, a coach, two shots in the head, one in the stomach. And the latest report is that one more has been killed.
YOUNG: Well, Frank Shorter, the marathoner, was on the 1972 U.S. Olympic Team. He heard those shots, the start of a hostage crisis that would end with 11 Israeli athletes dead. He joins us from KGNU in Boulder, Colorado, to look back. And Frank, I don't imagine a time goes by that you don't think about 1972. But have you been thinking about it more now?
FRANK SHORTER: Of course I've been thinking about it now, because the situation in which the athletes find themselves is the same, really, as it was in Munich when we went to decide how we were going to proceed, how we were going to deal with this and then compete. So the athletes, of course they have to decide how they're going to deal with it, as well.
YOUNG: Well, we've been hearing some athletes saying they don't want their families to come. But it's also profoundly different, Frank, because they're going to the Olympics worried about terrorism. Were you?
SHORTER: No. No one was, because if you think back on it, it really was the first major international act of terrorism. They'd had some plane hijackings, Entebbe as I recall, and others, but nothing of this magnitude. But it's only different, I guess, in that now the athletes can decide beforehand how they are going to deal with it, whereas we had to decide right at that moment, pretty much after the memorial service, just how we were going to go on.
But my feeling is the mental attitude you take is the same. Really, when you get down to it, as an elite athlete, you've developed an ability to focus on your event, to turn the switch on and turn the switch off, as I put it. And you also realize in that circumstance that with all that chaos, and here the possibility of chaos in Sochi, the only thing over which you have any control are your own thoughts.
YOUNG: Well, just back up for a second because you said nobody would've thought of such a thing. A few did. Your roommate in Munich, Kenny Moore, remembers a British marathoner telling him that there had been death threats against the British athletes from the Irish Republican Army. Now this was during British rule in Northern Ireland, during the troubles. So in some quarters people were nervous.
But by and large, this was really a more innocent time. Let's remind people how it played out. I mean eventually the terrorists, who as we heard had already killed, were able to convince authorities to get them to the airport so they could leave, presumably with the hostages. But German authorities launched a rescue attempt. It failed. It was pretty horrific. Let's listen again, Jim McKay.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM)
MCKAY: I've just gotten the final word. You know, when I was a kid my father used to say our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said that there were 11 hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning. Nine were killed at the airport tonight. They're all gone.
YOUNG: The great Jim McKay, speaking, by the way, with Chris Schenkel, who was sitting next to him. This, it's hard to even fathom that this actually happened.
SHORTER: Well, it's getting emotional here, yeah.
YOUNG: This is hard for you to talk about.
SHORTER: Yeah, yeah. It's very hard to describe the surprise you have in that kind of situation. For instance my own experience, I happened to be sleeping on the balcony of our rooming complex. So I was outside and actually heard the shots. And I thought to myself: I've been sleeping out here several nights, and that's the first time I've heard a sound like this. This is not a door slamming. Something's going on.
And then the next morning, I woke up, and it was just like the jungle when there's a predator. There was no sound below me in the Olympic Village. I was lying there going it's silent, it's silent, something's going on. And we all realized that something had happened.
And then when the news starts to come through, and you've heard here how there was the broadcast on American television, well German television was also broadcasting what was going on, and one of the athletes, the great and late Steve Prefontaine, was actually fluent in German. So we were watching on our little black-and-white television what was going on, standing on the balcony, looking across the courtyard.
And actually at one point we saw that terrorist with the stocking over his head, with the submachine gun, that famous picture. We saw this person.
YOUNG: Wait a minute, wait a minute. I mean, I know I've heard you tell this story before, but you sleep overnight with a terrorist feet from you holding hostages?
SHORTER: Oh, it was across a courtyard.
YOUNG: Nobody cleared everybody else out or woke you up or...?
SHORTER: No, no, no, nothing. And we woke up, and you could - across this open courtyard were the buildings that housed the Israeli athletes. And you could tell everything was - what was happening because you could see, you know, security people trying to run around. And it was sort of comical because you'd see people with sweatsuits on carrying guns sort of running from bush to bush. And I'll never forget thinking why the heck are they even wearing sweatsuits here.
And that shows you just how no one was ready for this. And so we literally passed the day on the balcony watching this as a group, processing it as it was going on. And you would get these accounts, and you talked about the athletes going back to the airport.
Yes, when the helicopters came in to pick them up, they flew right over us and landed on the far side of the building, out of sight, and a little later on they took off and then flew over us back to the airport. And I'll never forget turning to Kenny Moore and talking to him and saying Kenny, I don't think this is over.
YOUNG: And as we heard, it wasn't over. The hostage crisis ended with 11 Israeli athletes dead. And remember all of this playing out on television, quite something. The 1972 games were paused for memorial service, but they continued after that, and the American marathoners had to decide should we stay and compete despite what's happened.
We're speaking with Frank Shorter, who led the decision to stay and not give in to fear. He went on to win the gold medal. This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW. As the Sochi games are being played magnificently, under the threat of terrorism, we've been hearing about the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany, that were interrupted by a terrorist attack. Eventually, 11 athletes would die after a rescue attempt by the West Germans went horribly wrong.
Marathoner Frank Shorter was on the U.S. team. We've been hearing how his room was right across the courtyard from where the Israeli athletes were being held hostage. He heard the gunshots from the Palestinian terrorists who invaded the Israeli athletes' rooms. Then he and his teammates watched from their balcony as the hostage-taking unfolded, and afterwards, had to decide what to do.
Should they stay and run the marathon, the last event of the games? We spoke with Frank Shorter's roommate in Munich, marathon runner Kenny Moore, a few years ago. He told us it was Frank Shorter who made the case that the athletes would stay and compete. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
KENNY MOORE: Frank was the eloquent one then. He said we have to spread the word, by performance, that barbarism only makes Olympians stronger. We have to say this is as scared as I get, and let's go run.
YOUNG: So, Frank Shorter, let's go run, even though all those Israeli athletes had died. This was just traumatic, reverberating around the world. So what were your thoughts then?
SHORTER: Well, it took a while to get to that point, because initially, during that day, where we're all out there on the balcony - literally, all the distance athletes were pretty much housed in the same room. We probably had five to 10 people at any one time out there. And as all this transpired, and then the next day when we woke up to find out that everyone had died at the airport, really, the collective feeling was we're all going home, because nothing's worth human life. And so, you know, it's over. The games are over.
But it wasn't a feeling of having been deprived of something. It was more it was more a realization somehow that everyone was coming to in this state of shock. But what happened then is, as we continued to process this over the next day, and then when they had the memorial service in the stadium the next night, on the way back from that memorial service, I think that's when - at least for me - that feeling of no, no. You can't give in, because if you do, the terrorists win.
And that's when I had this discussion with Kenny Moore about how, for me, I was going to run the race, and I was not going to think about what might happen out there, because to me, the only place in the Olympics - and I said this to Kenny - the only other place in the Olympics that terrorists can do something now with all the security heightened is out on the Olympic marathon course. And I'm not going to think about it, because if I do, they win. And I ran the entire race, and I never thought about it.
YOUNG: Well, and you won. And this is in Munich, where you were born, your dad in the military. Let's listen to a little of your race.
(SOUNDBITE OF OLYMPICS BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Frank Shorter appears to be running to victory in the marathon through the streets of his old hometown. There he is, between those trucks. And his old hometown is Munich, West Germany. He was born here, but he only lived here for a few months, when his father was an Army doctor.
YOUNG: Frank Shorter, quite something, but I just can't help but think of your hesitation a few minutes ago. You know, it's clear that you still - I can't imagine that you don't still feel that day in gunshots and seeing a masked terrorist. And I think of that, thinking that you were also in Boston on April 15th when the bombs went off near the finish line. You've got to be the only person who was at both events.
What happened for you? You heard that blast, too. Do you - does it trigger the other one?
SHORTER: It does trigger the memories, because I was actually just going into a store across the street, into the store that had the security camera that showed where the second bomb was. And I was trying to take a shortcut over to the television trucks. I was helping with the broadcast. And I heard the bomb, and I knew right away what it was. I did. I just said oh, no. Oh, no.
And then I went into the store to go out the back, because I knew there would be other people coming in behind me. And I heard the second bomb, which was right across the street. And then, all I could think of was the reason I turned into the store, the crowd had stopped, and my gauge of making no progress was a child being held on the shoulders of a man about 10 feet ahead of me. And I went into the store, and that bomb went off, and all I could think of was that child on the head of - on the shoulders of this person. And my thought was oh, no. Oh, no, not again.
And, yes, it did rekindle. But the other thing about it was - and I think what maybe has changed, yes, people did start to come into the store behind me, and we all started to walk towards the back, this huge crowd of people. And you would think that it might be panic in the theater when someone says fire. Absolutely the opposite.
Everyone was walking slowly, purposefully. Some people were very upset, crying, a certain amount of hysteria. They were being comforted. And everyone was just sort of flowing out the back, away from this danger. And I think it - to me, right then, I knew, in a way, something was different about how people responded. And then you saw what went on during the rest of the day, as people were running to the victims rather than try to run away from the scene. And I think in that respect, it's changed.
And I also think in the way that Boston responded so immediately, and then everyone else in the running community - the way I put it is the terrorists picked the wrong demographic group. If they wanted to sort of get someone to not show up and to be fearful of an event, this year's Boston Marathon, I think, will probably be the most attended. And they will be turning people away because of just that same feeling that was in Munich over 40 years ago, which was you can't let the fear of what someone might do prevent you from doing something that you really feel you should and need to do. You can't do that, because if you do, they win.
And it's a wonderful part of the human nature to discover, both that and the human ability to really want to help, want to help rather than to take care of themselves.
YOUNG: That's 1972 Olympic gold medal marathoner Frank Shorter. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. And Frank, you've been telling us about what it was like to live through an Olympic terror attack. What would you tell the athletes now in Sochi, given the fears?
SHORTER: Yeah. It is so important that everyone in Sochi realize that you can do it in a way that this fear, this fear of the unknown, will not affect you. And it doesn't mean that you're heartless. And it doesn't mean that you lack caring, and it doesn't mean you're selfish. What it means is, once again, you are taking control over that over which you have some control, which are your thoughts, and then your actions from those thoughts to demonstrate that you won't let it affect you.
YOUNG: Frank Shorter, winner of the 1972 Olympic marathon in what was then Munich, West Germany, reflecting on that and recent events here in Boston as we go ahead into Sochi. Frank, thanks so much for speaking with us.
SHORTER: Oh, thank you.
YOUNG: Well, of course, the 1972 Summer Games changed the way everyone thinks about sporting events. But do you remember watching it then, the terrorist attack, 11 Israeli athletes killed? What did you think about the decision to pause and then continue the games? If you have a story from that time, please let us know. Go to this story and just hit the comments at hereandnow.org. We'd love to hear from you. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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