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Shattered innocence, Munich memories

Citius, Altius, Fortius, Terrorist. A non-heroic, non-Latin factor again painfully intrudes on the Olympic motto, "Swifter, Higher, Stronger." Terrorist! A bomb left by a coward in the Atlanta night rips the heart from a celebration of athletic conquest.

How bad was it? How many dead? Wee-hours questions exploded in the Atlanta mind. Chills shot across my shoulders, then up the neck. I involuntarily flashed back to Munich, where a 1972 massacre forever robbed Olympics of their innocence.

Georgia's loss of life does not approach the Bavarian slaughter of 24 years ago, when 11 Israeli sportsmen were murdered, but the Georgia mind-set of early Saturday was similarly frightening and sobering.

There was eerie symmetry.

Hours before the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, swimming competition concluded at Georgia Tech Aquatic Center with Americans waving flags and chanting "USA! USA!" in jubilation over a mighty haul of gold medals.

In Munich, eight hours prior to Black September loyalists scaling an unsecured Olympic Village wall as a preamble to disaster, the final Schwimhalle race saw Mark Spitz of the United States win a record seventh gold and set a seventh world record.

There are also considerable differences between Munich and Atlanta. Here in Georgia, the villain figures to have been a solo act. Weaponry was perhaps a small and crude bomb. The attack at the 1972 Olympics was heavy in armament, extensively planned and involved eight highly trained Palestinian terrorists.

At Munich, I was an Associated Press reporter. It was 18 months before my hiring by the St. Petersburg Times. The first of my 10 Olympics. My primary assignment was swimming and Spitz, the hottest name at the '72 Games.

For nine gold-plated days, Mark was elusive, pompous and uncooperative. Monday night was a happy time. Spitz got his seventh. Swimming ended. I was happy. I was through with Mark. Or so I thought.

Next day, I was scheduled to be off. I planned a subway trip to Scwabing, the liveliest section of Munich. I was younger then. But at 6:30 a.m. there was a phone call from AP sports editor Bob Johnson. Hooded monsters had stormed the Israeli quarters. It was then sunrise on a day to become known as "Black Tuesday."

Minutes later, I was in AP's office at the Main Press Center, using binoculars to peer across 200 yards of open land at Olympic Village. We could make out hooded, gun-waving Black September terrorists on an Israeli dormitory balcony.

Debbie Meyer, winner of three swimming golds in 1968 at Mexico City, had worked as my Schwimhalle helper. She had a USA team jacket. We borrowed the coat for Karol Stonger, an AP reporter who would be slipped past still-lax security and into the Olympic Village. Guards figured she was an athlete. Stonger delivered reports by walkie-talkie.

I was called to a phone. It was Sherm Chavoor, personal coach of Spitz. "I thought you'd like to know," he said, "that Mark has flown safely out of Germany and will soon land in London. Being a Jew as well as the No. 1 celebrity of these Olympics, he had become understandably scared."

Chavoor was using me.

Spitz was stashed at a downtown Munich hotel. His coach knew that AP was an international news organization and that reports of Mark's departure would immediately be beamed to German radio stations.

Within minutes, the word about Spitz was all over Bavaria. A few hours later, feeling the heat was off, the famous swimmer wore a disguise and was slipped to an airport for a flight out of Munich.

Negotiations continued through the day. Jim McKay was evolving into an Olympic legend as ABC-TV's anchor. American viewers were mesmerized. When McKay eventually wept over Israeli killings, people in 50 states cried with him.

About 10 p.m., Johnson ordered me to get some sleep. To prepare for early Wednesday coverage. But by 6 a.m. my sports editor was telephoning. German forces had rushed the Palestinians at an air force base as the terrorists attempted to flee with Israeli captives. There was heavy gunfire. Eleven from Israeli's Olympic team wound up dead.

Johnson would then dispatch me to the most sickening assignment of my almost 40 years in the journalism business. I went to an airport where an El Al 747 was loading coffins. Taking victims home to Tel Aviv.

Later that day, due to a horribly insensitive decision by Avery Brundage, dictatorial president of the International Olympic Committee, athletic competitions resumed in Munich. I don't even recall flags being dropped to half staff to honor the fallen Olympians.

Atlanta doesn't truly compare to Munich, but yet in some ways it does. Not the scope of pain, but the mind-set. The human sorrow. The realization that modern Olympics are no longer just sports competitions, memorable performances, gleeful spectators and medals of gold, silver and bronze.

"It's difficult to tell how far we've progressed since Munich," John Jackson of the London Sunday Mirror said upon learning of the Atlanta bombing. "Back home in Britain, we have sadly become almost used to such nonsensical terror. Due to the differences in Northern Ireland, we have a bomb exploding somewhere in London almost monthly."

Jackson has covered every Olympics since the 1960 Rome Summer Games. "It was pretty much all fun and games until Munich," he said, "but it's easy to forget that at the 1968 Mexico City Games there were 231 protesters gunned down by soldiers. Freedom of speech wasn't quite in vogue there. There have always been bad people in this world; they're just more brazen now."

By the 1976 Summer Games at Montreal, due to the Munich massacre, Olympic security was massively beefed. Athletes have since been housed in villages wrapped in barbed wire and secured by armed guards and metal detectors. In Quebec, while attempting to enter the weightlifting venue, I had a cocked rifle pushed into my face by a soldier so boyish he wasn't yet in need of a first shave. He was nervous. Me too.

Anti-terrorism plans have been extensive at every Olympics since Munich. There was a considerable worry in 1984 at Los Angeles, but everything proceeded peacefully. Security was intense at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, where authorities worried about intrusions from North Korea. But again the Olympics made it through unscathed.

Atlanta wasn't so fortunate.