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Murray: Blood on Olympus

Murray story archive

Thursday, September 13, 2001
A Price too high: Lasting lessons of Munich
By Jim Murray
Special to

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 6, 1987.

The phone was ringing. I awoke groggily to answer it. Any time you answer the phone at 6:30 in the morning, you're not going to like what you hear.

But, even by 6:30 a.m. standards, this was terrible. "Hello," said a strange voice on the other end. "This is Joe Alex Morris in the Bonn bureau. Now, on that guerrilla break-in down there, are you going to need any help?"

I shook my head to clear the cobwebs out. I struggled to remember where I was. Ah, yes, in Munich. For the Olympics. But wait a minute! What guerrillas? What break-in?

"A group of Palestine terrorists broke into the Israeli compound at the Olympic village this morning," Joe Alex explained. "They're holding hostages. They've killed at least one."

I thought hard for a moment, canvassed my options. I didn't have any.

"Listen, Joe," I told my colleague. "I'm a sports columnist, not to be confused with a journalist at all. I haven't covered a police story in 25 years and I can't speak German. Hell, yes, I'm going to need help down here."

"I'll be right down," promised Joe Alex.

And that was how it started, 15 years ago Saturday, the most nightmarish "sports" story I have ever covered.

I remember going downstairs to the lobby, uncertain where to begin. Howard Cosell was on his way out the door. "Come on," he shouted. "We're off to the village. I've got a car."

I jumped in beside him. On the other side, Shirley Povich of the Washington Post, looking ashen, leaped aboard. Up front sat massive Tony Triola, an ABC photographer.

We screamed along Munich streets amid sounds of sirens.

"It's the Third Reich all over again," intoned Cosell.

Someone stuck his head in the window. "What's going on?" he shouted.

"They're killing Jews," Shirley Povich told him bitterly. "It's an old custom in this part of the world."

I remember the loudspeaker on the car crackling. "Hide your press credentials. Tell them you're coaches," it instructed. None of us could believe it. Lax security had let terrorists toting machinge guns in, so they would make up for it by barring journalists.

We circled the village, finding it barricaded by security cops. The Germans had dressed them in these little pansy powder-blue suits and white caps to make them look like picknickers on the Wannsee but underneath they were the same tough brownshirts whose fathers had busted half the heads in Bavaria in their time.

We finally found one lightly guarded gate, one security man. Triola was chosen to destract him while the rest of us edged for the entrance, like kids sneaking into a matinee. Tony, who looks like the Matterhorn in a bush jacket, began screaming at the man, and we broke for the gate.

The scene inside was unbelievable. Rock music blared from a hundred cassettes, ice cream stands did a lively business, pin-swapping was endemic, gymnasts practiced back flips, runners jangled, couples danced.

It was hard to believe that a few hundred feet away in Building 31 on Connollystrasse, a handful of other young athletes sat bound and blindfolded on the floor, under the guns of eight terrorists. On the floor lay two colleagues, one dead, one dying.

The day passed in a miasma of colliding images. We were pursued by a hard-eyed stalker convinced that we were not the Thai rowing coaches we had said we were. At one point we found Will Grimsley, crack AP reporter, standing beneath the wired-in truck where the Munich chief of police was barking orders. We had the whole story right in front of us. In German. Unfortunately, none of us could speak it.

The rest of the day was spent in eluding our tormentor and summary ejection from the village. At one point, Povich and I were spirited into the Puerto Rican quarters, which looked right down on the balcony where one of the terrorists, wearing a white felt gangster hat, voiced his demands to the authorities collected below. To show you all the good this did us, we thought it was a woman. It wasn't.

Sometime after noon on that grim day, the German Minister of the Interior, Hans Dietrich Genscher, came up with a dramatic idea. If the kidnappers would agree to substitute German officials for their Israeli hostages, their demands would be met for airlift to safety and a huge ransom would be posted. The terrorists refused.

From our vantage point, we could see the German snipers crouched on the rooftops around the compound, waiting for the orders to shoot. Unfortunately, on TV, so could the terrorists. It was the first time a hijacking had been televised live. All over the world. People in Dubuque had a better idea what was going on than guys on the scene.

From Israel, Prime Minister Golda Meir had reiterated that there would be no dealing with terrorists. Their demands to empty the jails of their convicted colleagues fell on deaf ears. The ball was in West Germany's court. Bonn was profoundly embarrassed. They could almost hear Hitler's mocking laughter.

It was then, we know now, that the Germans resolved that the terrorists would never leave German soil with their captives. A massacre was locked in place.

We were told none of this. A helipad was constructed in the middle of the village, a van was sent to the underground ramp beneath Building 31, a Lufthansa 727 was gassed up and waiting out at one of Hitler's old airfields. Furstenfeldbrucke. The drama was moving to Libya.

We left the village at nightfall to write our stories, convinced that the worst was over. The terrorists had not made good on their threat to execute two hostages at a time beginning at 9 a.m. By 9 p.m., they had killed none.

By 11 p.m., they had killed all of them. We didn't know that, either. We went to bed on a high, under the misapprehension, announced at midnight, that all the hostages had been freed at the airport. Toasts were drunk, songs were sung. In retrospect, a macabre celebration.

What had actually happened, we found out the next morning, was that the German sharpshooters had opened fire, and before the shooting stopped, 15 more people were dead. The Septembrists immediately executed their hostages, shooting eight in the head and killing the ninth with a grenade thrown in the helicopter. Five terrorists and a German policeman also were killed.

Three guerrillas were captured and later freed in a hijacking exchange, but Israeli secret agents were said to have subsequently assassinated all the ringleaders in the slaughter.

Should the Games have been stopped? Should the flags have been taken down, the trumpets put away, the parade canceled, the medals melted, the young men and women sent home?

The argument has raged since the moment in the memorial service when a grim-faced Avery Brundage brandished a fist and shouted, "The Games must go on!"

If they had been canceled at Munich in 1972, would they have survived? Should they have?

Would we be better off today if we had permitted nine desperadoes, armed brigands, to cancel forever an international youth festival of the scope of the Olympic Games?

Looking back on it now, 15 years later, the answer seems to be no. Brundage, old despotic, elitist Avery, seems to have been right.

The Games must go on. The world is drab enough. People with guns are forcing all of us to barricade ourselves from life and living. Are they to get away with making us barricade our fine youth?

Terrorism got the attention of the world for one terrible day. The world did not like what it was seeing.

Giving in to terrorism is like giving in to any other form of blackmail. It nurtures it.

Terrorism is no longer an Olympic event. There have been three Olympics since Munich without incident. To have let eight haters with machine guns cancel the hopes and dreams of 8,000 young athletes would have been a disservice to mankind.

I think even the 11 brave young athletes who sacrificed their lives would have agreed. They did not let them hijack the Olympics.

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998. Help | Advertiser Info | Contact Us | Tools | Site Map | Jobs at
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