The Echo of Shots That Rang Through the Dawn
By Shirley Povich
The onset of every Olympics since reawakens memories of the horror of that September 4, 20 years ago. Shattered as never before was the Olympics' lofty ideal of Brotherhood, so often honored in the breach by the bickering and chicanery among competing nations.
Brotherhood? Consult Cain and Abel.
In the Munich darkness of 4 a.m., over the fences they came in stealth, eight Arab murderers headed for the Israeli compound in the Olympic Village that housed the 10,000 athletes from 123 nations.
Within 30 minutes they would poke their snub-nosed Russian Kalashnikov machine guns into the faces of the sleeping members of Israel's Olympic team.
A wake up call, Arab terrorist style. Eleven Israeli athletes would die.
That morning of the 10th day of the Games began for me and my press credentials with the usual long taxi ride from Munich's Hilton hotel to the Olympic Village. My driver was a high school teacher, one of the many types drafted to serve the thousands from all over the world who convened for the Games.
Halfway to the Village, the cab's radio music gave way to an excited babble. My driver turned to me with half-shouted words that seemed to be saying "Arabi! ... Israeli! ... Olympischeni! ... Arabi ... " In his agitated German he was saying more.
He was unaware that my understanding of his fast German bordered on the futile. But on earlier visits to Germany I had made do, linguistically, by applying my decadent and remnant Yiddish to the German tongue.
Now my driver was saying "Arabi shussen Israeli !"
Ah, "shussen" could mean the Yiddish "shissen," or a shooting. I cocked my thumb and forefinger at him in the universal language of the pistol and said, "shussen" and he said, "Ja."
"My God, faster to the Olympischen," I said. "Mach schnell."
The scene at the Village gates bespoke a military operation. German soldiers, their light machine guns at the ready, ringed the premises, telling me this wasn't your ordinary peacetime Olympic Village entrance. Nobody was getting in except the army and the police.
Backed by his ABC camera crew, Howard Cosell was vainly trying to tell the German army whom he worked for. They didn't care who he was.
While Cosell was haranguing and occupying the German Army, Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times and I somehow executed a small end run and, surprisingly, found ourselves safely inside the Village.
It was a bit later that the German military crumbled before Cosell's frontal assault and we all raced to Building 31 on Connolly Strasse that we knew was the Israeli compound.
At Building 31 the scene had the smell of war. Grim. Gun-toting terrorists were seen patroling the upstairs porches. Below on the street the Germans had brought up ambulances but they were not as innocent as they appeared. They stood for more than do-good medics and stretchers. White jacketed German doctors, some with stethoscopes, were milling about, but with suspicious bulges in the pocket areas. It was camouflage. The terrorists themselves were under siege.
The terrorists, to show the Germans that they meant business already had flung the dead body of Moshe Weinberg, 33-year-old wrestling coach, onto the street for all to contemplate.
Negotiating with the terrorists were Munich's mayor and other officials seeking release of the Israeli hostages and offering safe passage to the terrorists. To set forth their demands the terrorists had come prepared. Conducting the negotiations was a German-speaking Arab accompanied by another terrorist in a ski mask.
Barely yards away, standing beside a vintage stand-up microphone, a cool young ABC radio broadcaster was giving a graphic play-by-play of the battle scene. He seemed to be gifted. It would be my first glimpse of Peter Jennings.
How had all this grim business come about anyway?
Just before dawn that day, workers on the night shift at the Olympic Village post office had seen the shadowy group of fence-climbers scaling the barriers. The workers simply shrugged. No big deal. Nothing more than curfew-breakers trying to make it back to the Village, they reasoned.
It had been a common sight, athletes carrying those adidas and Puma bags big enough to carry a small machine gun if necessary, scaling fences. A cyclist from Holland would tell me, "No trouble getting over the fence." He said that a few nights before he and a friend had slung their Olympic bikes over that fence and made it back to the dorm after curfew.
We learned that at 4:30 a.m. the first shots rang out inside the three-story building housing the Israelis on the first two floors. Unmolested and led to safety were the East German athletes occupying the top floor.
A knock on his door aroused an Israeli team doctor. Half opening the door he screamed, "You're an Arab!" and slammed the door. A shot fired through it killed wrestling coach Weinberg. With the Arabs forcing their way into several rooms, only two of the 15-man Israeli team could scramble to safety by stairway and windows. Two would be murdered on the spot. The rest, the surviving nine, were in Arab hands.
Papers dropped to the street by the gun-toting terrorists announced their terms for quitting the premises:
1. Safe conduct by helicopters to the Munich airport, with their hostages, and planes to take all them to three different destinations in the Arab world.
2. The release of more than 200 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, or all of the Olympic hostages would be killed.
Two sticking points developed. The Germans would agree to provide the planes but demanded the release of the hostages. And Israel, quickly contacted, snubbed the terrorists' demand to release the 200.
We had ringside seats to the goings-on but presently all newsmen were ordered out of that Olympic Village sector, with the German army and police beginning a determined sweep. At least two of us escaped it. This correspondent found a hiding place along with Dave Wolf, a Newsweek reporter who said he had a liaison with the coach of the Puerto Rican team. A friendly coach provided us with Puerto Rican sweatsuits and we looked sufficiently at ease when the police came in and were nicely duped.
We now had a box seat less than 40 yards from the war scene. I also had binoculars and a direct telephone that permitted me to dictate the situation in progress. This was a line to The Post-Newsweek station in Paris, thence to The Washington Post syndicate. I took advantage of it to ask Paris to call the Munich Hilton and tell Mrs. Povich I would not be back for dinner that night.
I saw a dismaying thing earlier in the day during a trek through Olympic Village. It was the revolting behavior of the scores of Olympic athletes there, Americans included. With two of their colleagues dead and 11 others in the hands of terrorists only a few blocks away, these Olympians appeared unconcerned. Rock music blared from their transistor radios. Not a ping-pong table was empty. Laughter was heard everywhere. As a group, it was quite jolly. If anybody was in trouble and about to get killed, so what?
As darkness came the Germans struck some kind of a deal with the terrorists, it appeared. Now with their high velocity machine guns pointed at their captives the eight Arabs marched the nine remaining Israelis through the tunnel to the helicopter pad -- and their destiny.
Their destiny was a loud, bloody shoot-up at the airport where the 'copters arrived and a transit plane was ready. The plan had been to pick off the terrorists on the tarmac as they transferred to the plane. The trap set by German sharpshooters failed. It was botched when one rifleman acted prematurely, shot at a single Arab who was returning from an inspection of the waiting plane and wounded him.
That's when everything broke loose. One Arab popped out of the first helicopter containing four hostages and threw a grenade into it. There were no survivors. At that point terrorists in the second 'copter shot and killed all five of the other hostages. Of the eight terrorists, five died, three were captured.
In the rescue effort that the Germans had so elaborately planned one German policeman was killed and a 'copter pilot wounded. Such was the tension in the Olympic Village the next day that the Jewish-American swimmer, Mark Spitz, who had set a record of winning seven gold medals, was spirited out of Munich to London in fear he would be the target of other terrorists. A news conference celebrating Spitz's achievements was hurriedly cancelled.
President Nixon, in a telegram, had demanded that the rest of the Games be called off. The Olympic pooh-bahs responded by merely declaring a half-day hiatus, and that morning when 80,000 trooped into the Munich stadium for a solemn memorial service for the Israelis, Avery Brundage, who became an actor in the aftermath of the massacre, loused it up.
Brundage was the Mr. Pomposity, head of the International Olympic Committee. His own Olympic history included a fourth place finish in the discus; his outrageous ejection of Eleanor Holm from the U.S. team (he was then head of the USOC) bound for the Berlin Games in 1936 caused a furor. The sin of the beauteous backstroke record-holder was that she had sipped some champagne with friends aboard the ship. Remembered is that it was then said of Brundage, "He has a discus where his heart belongs."
Brundage's contribution to the memorial for the Israeli athletes was a long, windy defense of his failed attempt to restore Rhodesia to the Games after that nation had been banned for its apartheid policy. He made scarce mention of the Israelis' tragedy, dismissing it with a mere 27-word tribute to "our Israeli friends."
The morning after the massacre, a wreath appeared at the Israeli compound, Building 31. For a while it seemed that only Holland had remembered. Later, five more wreaths, including one from the U.S. team, appeared. Only six of the 123 Olympic nations were moved to make even that sympathetic gesture.
Also on that morning after, an El Al plane with 10 coffins aboard lifted off from Munich's Riem airport, bound for Jerusalem. On another plane, a U.S. Air Force Starlifter, destination Shaker Heights, Ohio, was the body of David Berger, an American who had qualified as a weightlifter for the Israeli team. He had dual citizenship. It wasn't terrorist proof.
Shirley Povich, who turns 87 next Wednesday, is in his 70th year of covering sports for The Washington Post.
© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company