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20 years can't dim the horror

Published Jul. 19, 1992|Updated Oct. 11, 2005

Olympic innocence died 20 years ago, a victim of human evolution and terrorist bullets.

Munich was my first Games. I was 33, a New York-based Associated Press reporter a year and a half from becoming sports columnist at the St. Petersburg Times.

My immediate Munich assignment was swimming, and for nine days the story was a Mark Spitz waterfall of seven Olympic gold medals and seven world records.

On the 10th day, I was to rest. Swimming was over, and I was going to downtown Munich to photograph the New Gothic beauty of City Hall and cruise the upscale / artsy Schwabing neighborhood and see brownstone buildings with a besmirched history as 1930s headquarters to Adolf Hitler's rising Nazi onslaught.

As I splashed on after shave, the phone rang in my 8-by-10 press village suite. It was AP sports editor Bob Johnson, a leathery former Marine who, as the wire service's Dallas bureau chief in 1963, had orchestrated coverage of the Kennedy assassination.

"Get your tail to the office," Johnson said. "All hell is breaking loose. Forget taking a day off. Terrorists are loose in the athletes' village. If you ever wanted to be a war correspondent, this could be your chance."

It was Sept. 5, 1972.

Black Tuesday.

Eight invaders, disguised as Olympic athletes, had bounded over an unguarded 78-inch chain-link fence. In seemingly peaceful pre-dawn, Arab assassins slithered among two-story dorms housing competitors from 55 nations. They honed in on Building 31, where Israel's team was sleeping.

A nightmare soon broke in.

"Instinctively, I knew it was an Arab raid," weightlifter Tuvia Sokolsky said. "I heard my friends yelling, "Get out! Escape!' I couldn't get my window open, so I smashed it and got away."

Eleven wouldn't be so lucky.

Hand-to-hand combat ensued, and then gunfire. Sportsmen fell dead, and others became Arab hostages. Soon, the world awoke aghast as AP bulletins and network broadcasts from Munich reported the developing horror.

Black September agents, hoods on heads and machine guns on shoulders, were demanding the release of 200 political prisoners. Israeli prime minister Golda Meir said it was a game she wouldn't play.

A preamble to tragedy.

Sixteen men eventually would die, 11 Olympians and five terrorists. Monday's sport had evolved into Tuesday's catastrophe.

"You sports writers are now all hard-news guys," Johnson said at a staff briefing.

My AP boss gazed though a fifth-floor window of Olympic Press Center, an unimpeded view across 200 yards of open field to the athletes' village and Building 31. With binoculars, we saw a hooded terrorist on a balcony.

"Police are closing the village to everybody," Johnson said. "We've got to do everything to get AP reporters in there. This is a monster story."

That was hours before we knew how Black Tuesday would end, and how many would die.

Olympic Games never would be the same. Professionalism was beginning to shove aside amateurs at the highest level of sport. Commercialism soon would be the primary Olympic fuel. And, that Tuesday in Munich, terrorism became a reality to be forever feared.

Will Grimsley, a sweet-talking Tennessean and AP's most experienced sports writer, convinced German soldiers that he belonged in the village.

"Karol Stonger is young and small," Johnson said of another AP reporter, "so maybe we can fool the guards into admitting her, thinking she is a gymnast or something.

"But we need a U.S.A. team jacket."

For the previous nine days at Olympic Schwimmhalle, my free-lance aide had been Debbie Meyer, a triple-gold-medal American swimmer at the Mexico City Games four years before. She had a U.S.A. jacket, so Stonger borrowed it and slipped inside the village, which had become an armed camp.

John Vinocur, another AP reporter, ignored police warnings and scaled a fence to get close to Building 31. A native New Yorker, he was a college basketball player from Long Island who matriculated to backwater France, learning the language from natives and picking up money playing semi-pro hoops. AP later hired Vinocur and based him in Europe. He eventually jumped to the New York Times and is that newspaper's Paris bureau chief.

Across Munich, news pros stalked a developing drama. Miles from the athletes' village, in an ABC-TV studio, Jim McKay reported factually, passionately and even tearfully on an Olympics gone bad. Seven time zones away, stunned Americans were watching. McKay became legend, and immersed in Emmys, for his commentary.

"You hate to think a terrible day like that is the biggest boost to your career," McKay said recently. "You almost feel guilty about it."

Now 70, McKay lives on a farm near his hometown of Baltimore and continues to work ABC telecasts of golf and horse racing.

ABC and AP were the two largest news organizations covering the Munich Olympics, and on Black Tuesday there was an emergency agreement to share information. Johnson appointed me as AP's liaison; my counterpart from ABC was Peter Jennings, then the network's Middle East correspondent and now anchor of ABC's World News Tonight.

Every hour, it became more tense.

Hans Dietrich Genacher, West Germany's minister of the interior, couldn't take it any longer and approached Building 31 with screaming pleas for the terrorists to release the hostages. He got nowhere, except back to safety.

West German chancellor Willy Brandt hurried to Munich from the national capital of Bonn and offered millions of dollars in ransom.

"Hostages, not money!" a Black September voice bellowed in Arabic from Building 31.

Through the day, the three AP reporters whispered advisories by walkie-talkie from inside locked-tight village fences. Grimsley talked his way into the West German police command center. Vinocur and Stonger were behind a wall, peering at Building 31.

In the initial assault, two Israelis had been killed. Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Joseph Romano held a dormitory door closed against Arab madmen. But then bullets ripped through the wood, and the Olympians fell dead.

Harv Schmidt, a veteran AP editor from Frankfurt, grimaced at midday and said, "Isn't this a bastard of a thing?" In World War II, he had been a U-boat officer in Hitler's navy. "We in West Germany have worked so hard, and spent so much post-war money, to create a better image. Now this! We're back where we started."

By the afternoon of Black Tuesday, terrorists were threatening to shoot Israeli hostages two by two if Meir didn't begin releasing their imprisoned compadres. Eventually, night fell on Building 31, and by then the Arab gunmen were asking for safe flight out of Munich. German authorities pretended to go along.

By 9 p.m., there was a lull in news. Johnson told me, "Go to your room and get some rest because we'll need relief in the bureau at dawn."

It had become quiet, and eerie, and I fell asleep. At 4 a.m., my phone rang. My sports editor.

"Is everything over?" I asked in a half-awake stupor.

"Yeah, it's over," Johnson answered in an uncharacteristically quiet tone. "They're all dead."

Alone in my room, I cried.

Helicopters had ferried Black September's emissaries and Israeli hostages from the village to an airport. West German police agreed to supply a transport jet for "safe flight" but never intended to allow the people from Building 31 to take off.

"When they got to the airport," Johnson said, "it became open warfare. The German cops tried to storm the Arabs. It was a bloodbath. A total disaster. Nearly everybody, hostages and terrorists, is dead."

He ordered me to Munich Airport for a most unusual, most bothersome assignment. El Al, the Israeli airline, was flying the wooden caskets of dead Olympians home to Tel Aviv.

"You'll need all the skill and judgment you can muster," Johnson said, "to write about that scene."

Please, Lord, never again.

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