Black September

Wednesday, September 4
A marathoner's message from Munich

Editor's note: Frank Shorter won the gold medal in the marathon, the last event at the Munich Olympics. This is his story about the events of Sept. 5, 1972, and the days following the tragedy.

By Frank Shorter
Special to

Coming into the 1972 Olympics I was really looking forward to taking part in the Olympic experience. I was lucky enough to have had a college coach at Yale in 1965, Robert Giegengack, who was the head coach of the 1964 U.S. Olympic track team. He would always regale us with stories of what it was like to be at the Olympics. Listening to him made me want to get there, and to have the kind of experience they had.

Frank Shorter
With his victory at Munich, Frank Shorter is the last American marathoner to win an Olympic gold medal.
I wanted to have the Olympic experience, to mingle with people from other countries. And I did. That was the way it really turned out to be. You'd walk into the dining hall and get your tray and sit down across from somebody from anywhere else in the world and you'd just end up talking with them. There were no barriers.

The whole scene was very friendly. It was a time before the professionalization of a lot of Olympic sports. In the intervening years, money and the agents who help the athletes get the money have mitigated the openness we felt at Munich. In Munich, you knew the only reason you were there -- unless you were one of the select few who were going to hire an agent and send out the glossies to land an advertising sponsorship out of it -- was to have the Olympic experience and then return home to go on with the rest of your life.

I remember the Olympic Village as an idyllic kind of planet. The idea of having earned the right to be there meant so much to me. To have actually made a U.S. team, and to get your uniform -- this was something you couldn't buy. If nothing else happens in my life, this was enough for me.

When the hostages were taken, and the first shots were fired, I was sleeping on the balcony of my room in the Olympic Village. My roommate, Dave Wottle, who won the gold medal in the 800 meters, was newly married and his wife Jan was in our room with him, so I figured that was not the place for me to be and I slept on the balcony.

The security in the village was pretty lax. We had made copies of the visitation passes to the Olympic Village. Olympic officials' friends and spouses could pass freely in and out of the Olympic Village, but they made it difficult for athletes' friends and wives to do so. However, they made the mistake of having an example of one of the passes in the village guidebook. One exacto knife, some double-edged sticky tape and a pair of scissors later, and we all had passes for our friends and wives to get into the village -- that's how Jan Wottle got in.

Anyway, I had pulled my mattress out on the balcony and I was sleeping, when I heard what I thought at first was a door slamming. But then I thought to myself, wait a minute, I've been here two weeks and that's the first door I've heard like that. I knew it was a gun. Whatever else I wanted to think it was, I knew it was a gun.

Hearing nothing more, I eventually fell back asleep, but when I woke back up, there was an eerie silence. Not only was there no human sound, it was as if there was no sound at all. No birds singing. Nothing. It was very eerie.

Arab commando
Cloaked in a ski mask, a Palestinian terrorist peering over a balcony at the Olympic Village remains the lasting image of the Munich massacre.
Very quickly, we learned something had gone on -- that Israeli athletes had been killed and others were being held hostage in their room. The information we got through the grapevine, the word that was traveling through the village, turned out to be very accurate, right from the start. We also had a little portable television in our room, and Steve Prefontaine, the American distance runner, spoke German because his mother was German, so he translated for us what they were saying on the German news telecasts.

We didn't know what to do. We just stood there all day, like dumb people, on our balconies, in the direct line of fire, just a hundred yards away from what was going on, watching. We never thought we were at risk. We didn't know -- something like this had never happened.

People were just waiting for a long while, but eventually some of us went out to train. We had this group that went out twice a day during the Games. We went to a back gate, and supposedly the grounds were locked down, but we knew all the guards so we asked, using hand signals, whether or not we could go out. They actually let us climb the fence. So we went up and over and went to run.

These were military people working the gates. If someone had given them an order saying no one gets in or out, they wouldn't have let us go, but apparently they weren't given that order. I'm not criticizing how things happened, we were just surprised. We were lucky to be able to get out actually, otherwise we would have gone stir-crazy. We were glad to be able to continue to train.

I don't remember what we talked about on that run, but at that time, terrorists were in the habit of hijacking airplanes, so we knew about these kinds of things, we knew about negotiations and we knew that often the result was not good. We were not optimistic.

Eventually, we came back and were standing on the balcony again. Suddenly at dusk, some helicopters landed on the other side of the building. We heard that some kind of deal had been struck, and that they were going to fly the athletes out of the Village. We thought they were going to get them out of there, and then deal with it. When the helicopters took off again, everyone around me sort of breathed a sigh of relief. I remember I turned to Kenny Moore and said, "Kenny, I don't think this is over." I just had this bad feeling.

When we heard the next morning that they had all died at the airport, I remember this terrible sinking feeling. The initial reaction is that you want to go home. You want to be with people you love. You want to feel secure. That you don't want to be there. You also realize that people have died and nothing you're doing is of any value in comparison to their deaths.

Then they had the memorial service, and on the way back, walking back, people started to come out of it and started to realize that you can't go home, because if you do that the terrorists win. You realize you have to go on, you have to not let it affect you.

I began to realize that the only other place that was going to be vulnerable to attack was the marathon course. It was the only place that was now unsecure. I thought about it for one minute, maybe less, and then I decided I had to put it out of my mind because my thoughts were the only thing over which I had any control, and I was not going to give them up to the terrorists. I decided then and there that I was not going to think about it.

Mine was just a human response, to endure and survive, I think. As athletes and competitors, we were in a situation where that response was accelerated by the intensity of the time, but it was just a typical response to want to go on.

Olympics Munich
The Olympics paused only briefly for a memorial on Sept. 6, 1972 -- before the deaths of nine Israeli athletes were confirmed.
I think it was right that the Games went on. I felt that Avery Brundage, the head of the International Olympic Committee, was wrong in equating the attack of the terrorists on the Israelis with the threat African nations had made earlier to boycott the Olympics. He equated the boycott threat with the terrorist attack, which was probably the worst thing he ever said in his life. But his decision to keep the Games going was the right decision because, as President Bush said recently after 9/11, you have to go on with what you do, and I believe that. You do, otherwise the terrorists do win.

What I've come to realize over the years is that it's not an individual thing, it's not an individual survival thing, it's sort of a species survival, it's the survival of everyone -- that's why it's important to go on. I think the Munich Olympics were in part continued because it meant the survival of an idea, of the Olympic ideal, but I don't think the athletes thought of it that way. We were the ones who had to deal with the survivor guilt, the guilt of knowing that people died and that nothing is that important. And you wonder if your wanting to compete is selfish. You ask yourself whether you are not really doing honor and really understanding if you go on with what you have come to do. I think the instinct for survival, which is probably a strong part of every athlete's make-up, was taking over in all of us. We told ourselves that the people who died were athletes and that they too would have felt the instinct to survive and would have wanted us to continue.

For us, at the time, in the moment, the memorial service seemed appropriate and it helped us move on to what we had to do. Now, I understand that some people feel that the IOC should do more to memorialize the victims. I think this comes back to the fact that in a situation like this there really is no right or wrong, everyone's response in that kind of situation is right, because they're all personal. In a sense, there is no collective response. An overall response emerges, but how any individual responds to get through that is correct. To say that they should have a memorial, I don't know, I think that misses the point. If there are certain individuals who now feel that response should happen because they have the power to implement it then that's fine. I was not an Avery Brundage fan, but I feel he did the right thing by continuing the Olympics, though not necessarily for the right reasons. Beyond that, it's hard for me to judge what should have happened then, or what should or shouldn't happen now.

Once the Games resumed, I was ready to run the marathon. There was something else outside of me for which to run. It wasn't really articulated, but there was another reason, which was the resolution not to give in to the terrorists. There were other athletes who were really thrown off by the delay, their routines and superstitions were broken up. There were some people who I knew wouldn't be a factor in the race because they were so troubled by the delay, and the way it disrupted their training patterns.

I told myself as I covered the course of the race that I would not think about what had happened, and I never did.

Then came the strange ending to the marathon, when an imposter entered the Olympic stadium before me. When I entered the stadium, there was no cheer. It was strange, but it never bothered me, because that's not why I was running. I've found out in the intervening years that it really did upset people who were watching at home on television, and they've offered me a lot of support over the years. They had great empathy for me and that has been very gratifying, but I never was emotionally upset about it. It never bothered me, really it never did. At that point, I was running for other reasons.

I think the lasting impact of what happened that summer in Munich is that people will always see the Olympic Games and other symbols of personal freedom as means to express their insanity. Just as with 9/11, somehow there is an aspect of our species that is anarchistic enough that they somehow feel that if they destroy everything they will emerge from the ashes and no one else will. And these kind of people, no matter where they're from, will always see vehicles to express that side of themselves in events like the Olympic Games.

That is the reality that we're just going to have to learn to deal with. That's where what President Bush said after 9/11, and what the athletes in Munich realized, that you simply have to go on, becomes so important. It's not that you won't work to prevent things from happening again, but you simply must go on. Personally. Individually. In a manner that doesn't allow them to win.

Athletes will continue to be targets, but it's more than that now. Everyone getting on a subway in New York City is a target; everyone getting on an airplane is a target. This is something that a lot of the world has realized for many years and that Americans have really only come to understand since 9/11.

We've been in denial about that, but those of us who were in Munich knew it a long time ago.

Frank Shorter, the United States' last Olympic gold medalist in the marathon, was elected chairman of United States Anti-Doping Agency in 2000. Short also won a silver medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

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