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Murray: Lasting lessons of Munich massacre

Murray story archive

Thursday, September 13, 2001
Blood on Olympus
By Jim Murray
Special to

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 7, 1972.

MUNICH -- "Seventeen dead, three wounded" is hardly an Olympics statistic. This was supposed to be a track meet, not a war.

Incredibly, they're going on with it. It's almost like having a dance at Dachau.

How can they have a decathlon around the bloodstains, run the 1,500 over graves?

There is a wreath at Building 31 in the Olympic Village right under the bullet hole. But there will be ribbons on the playing field and the bands are playing.

How do you put a funeral service on the sports page? Is an autopsy a field event? Is Beethoven a fight song?

Hard-boiled? No. Bitter, perhaps. Incredulous. Cynical. Shouldn't the Olympics have a wreath placed on its chest? Why does the high jump have to go on? Do we need a guy riding a horse in a high hat? Can't we just let poppies grow on this Olympics? Shouldn't things be All Quiet On The Western Front?

The Games should not be covered from the press box but from the war room. By communique, not communication.

The most important memento of this Olympiad, joining the succession of Jim Thorpe's shoes, Cornelius Warmerdam's pole, or Rafer Johnson's javelin is an Arab guerilla's machine gun.

The Olympic Stadium at Munich with its soaring center-poles reaching for the sky like railroad cannon, or its central tower jutting heavenward like a launch pad for heaven, will never match a bullet-scarred billet or airfield for Olympic symbolism. An automatic weapon should go to Helms Hall before Mark Spitz's trunks. Seven gold medals pale before 17 corpses.

The German communique from the airfield at Furstenfeldbruck should have read: "Heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy. One of our Olympic teams is missing."

It remains to be seen whether the Olympics have been turned into rubble, whether the closing ceremonies were really at 4:50 in the morning on the 5th of September or whether indeed, the memorial ceremony on September 6 was really for the Games themselves.

The Germans never seem to be able to run the country efficiently without the general, and the firing at Furstenfeldbruck could scarcely have been more disastrous. A group of us managed to break into the Village Tuesday morning after a lively game of "Hogan's Heroes" at three gates. We saw a tableau where armed Germans managed to walk around the sealed off compound in the sweat suits of a hundred track athletes and were impressed at the restrain, discipline and even bravery of the secret police. It is not a German tradition to hold fire, but if a fire fight had broken out in the village, they might be burying the dead in 20 languages.

No one thought as this Olympics opened, that Terror would be in Lane 1. It is evident that, as the United States and other nations convened for their qualification meets, so did the Arabs' Black September squad. Not even the East Germans were better prepared.

We stood outside Building 31, a shire of Olympian brotherhood, Wednesday. It was heavily guarded by blue-suited security police. There was nothing to guard but bloodstains and bullet holes, but orders are orders.

Outside, a lively little man from Hong Kong, a small bore (prone) rifle shooter from that Chinese outpost, whose team was quartered on the second and third floors of Building 31, above the first-floor Israelis, told of a morning of terror.

"We thought at first it was just some high-spirited athletes returning, drunk, from a night on the town." Peter A. Rull, of Nathan Road, Kowloon, told us.

"Despite this, I stuck my head out the door and I immediately heard groaning as from someone fatally hurt. I ran down to the lower floor to notify my assistant chef de mision Mr. (Raymond) Young when I noticed down the stairs this shady character with a sub-machine gun. I saw the huddled figure of a man dying on the floor."

For six hours the Hong Kong delegation, four in all in this billet, huddled inside their rooms. Finally Young, desperate, leaped to safety from a third story window and fled down the Connollystrasse into the shelter of police lines.

The guerrillas occupied the corridors and elevator access on all three floors but never bothered the Hong Kong athletes. An hour after the break-in, Rull announced, they planted the body of the slain Moshe Weinberg outside the door and permitted it to be taken off in an ambulance.

The guerrillas entered not by the street entrance (although the door is always open) but via the subterranean garage. Their knock on the door, Rull said, was accompanied by an innocent query, "Is this the Israeli compound?" A team doctor tried to slam the door on them and, report has it, Weinberg attacked with a knife and was slain.

"There was absolutely no shooting for the rest of the time they were there, only that first burst of several rounds of ammunition. At 11 o'clock, a colleague of mine in the judo event whose competition was over and who had a London plane to catch, braved the sentries and marched down to the bottom floor. They simply looked at him and inquired, 'Hong Kong?,' and he nodded yes and they pointed to the door and he went out to freedom."

Rull himself climbed to the rooftop a few minutes before the noon deadline the terrorists had given Israel and fled down a backstairs. He had no way of counting the terrorists. "One had a red sweat suit, one had his face painted black and one had not bothered to disguise. As a shooter, I could tell they had sophisticated weapons and they seemed coldly capable of using them."

Against this backdrop of violence and terror and burned helicopters, you might be tempted to question the gravity of how we do in the javelin. Can we throw our hats in the air over an Olympic record in the high jump when an Oympic record in execution broke the existing record by seventeen and may never be touched?

They stopped the Games to bury the dead. Maybe they should stop them to bury the Games.

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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