Dark day in Munich still casts shadow over London

The implications of a tragedy that changed the Games permanently are felt 40 years on as the capital braces itself for a £1 billion security operation. Alan Hubbard, who reported from Munich, recalls how the dreadful event unfolded

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The Independent Online

Tuesday 5 September. Dawn was breaking in Munich, with the 1972 Olympic Games into their second week. It was to become the day that changed the Olympics forever, one that is the reason why 40 years later London's Games will be locked in the biggest, most expensive and arguably most irritating security clampdown in history.

It also spawned the two words which remain indelibly scarred on the face of sport. Black September.

It was just after 4am when eight hooded members of the Palestinian terrorist organisation of that name jumped over the 8ft fence that encircled the Olympic Village and headed for 31 Connollystrasse, the block which housed the male Israeli athletes, coaches and officials. The Munich Massacre was about to tear the Olympics apart.

They rounded up those sleeping in two of the apartments. Several startled Israelis, still in vest and pants, fought back. Two were killed instantly and two more managed to escape out of windows. But nine were taken hostage.

Within an hour, news of the attack had spread around the world.

I had been woken by a colleague knocking on the door of my room in the Media Village, which overlooked the athletes' compound, yelling: "Someone's been shot dead in the Olympic Village."

We hurried to the perimeter fence of the Village, as close to the scene as the ring of police and militia would allow and the longest, most awful, day I have experienced in over half a century as a journalist began to unfold. Twenty-four hours of unremitting tension and high drama encompassed disbelief that such a terrible thing could be happening. There was anguish for those athletes, an hour of heart-lifting hope dashed by utter confusion and finally despair.

In the blinding early-morning sunlight you could make out armed polizei crouched around the building, some standing on the roof. It was also possible to see one or two masked terrorists framed in the windows, flourishing machine guns.

One of them dropped a list of their demands out of a window; they wanted 234 people released from Israeli prisons and two from German ones by 9am. Negotiators were able to extend the deadline initially to noon and then 5pm, but by then the terrorists realised those demands were not going to be met.

They asked for two planes to fly both themselves and the hostages to Cairo, where they hoped to begin fresh negotiations, with the Egyptians as intermediaries.

The German negotiators intimated that they had agreed but the local security forces were determined not to allow the terrorists to leave the country. They planned to attack them on the way to the airport, but the terrorists discovered this while watching the television newscasts in the Israeli apartments.

As dusk fell we looked into the sky and saw two helicopters heading from the Village. It transpired they were transporting terrorists and hostages to Munich's military airfield at Furstenfeldbruck. At around 10.30am two bright orange flashes lit up the darkened sky.

The Germans had laid an ambush. Five snipers were positioned around the tarmac and began to fire as the terrorists emerged from the helicopters.

But the terrorists fired back. Two of them and one policeman were killed. Then a terrorist tossed a grenade into a helicopter in which several of the hostages were bound and blindfolded. Other Israelis were killed when another terrorist jumped into the second helicopter and raked them with machine-gun fire.

Five of the Palestinians died in the gun battle which followed and three were captured and taken into custody. All nine of the remaining Israeli hostages had perished.

However, the tragedy was compounded by an unbelievable, unforgivable error. Back at the media centre the world's press, TV and radio were being erroneously informed in the early hours of Wednesday that all the hostages were safe.

The news was flashed around the globe, and for an hour that was what we and the world believed, among them, back in Israel, the relieved relatives of the slain athletes.

How this ghastly mistake happened has never been fully understood, though one assumes it surely was not a deliberate deception but an inexplicable breakdown in communication by the usually ultra-efficient Germans.

Later that day the remaining Israeli contingent and Jewish athletes from other nations were evacuated from the Games Village for their own security. Some even returned home. The choice of Munich nearly 30 years after the Second World War had always been controversial, especially as the Bavarian capital had been so closely associated with the rise of the Nazi Party.

The first concentration camp, in Dachau, was located on Munich's outskirts and the Israeli team had visited the site just before the opening ceremony.

How ironic that tight security at the Games appeared to have been relaxed after a veteran British journalist had complained that "it is easier to get into Dachau than it is the Olympic Village".

While those Munich Games have been irrevocably despoiled, there were many aspects of them that should be remembered for more uplifting reasons: the swimmer Mark Spitz – himself Jewish – winning a record seven gold medals; the delightful teenager Olga Korbut, whose elfin-like precocity on the beams and bars reminded us that Soviet sporting womanhood was not all bulk and biceps; and Britain's Mary Peters joyously capturing the golden prize in the pentathlon.

Yet I still shudder when recalling the words of one British athlete, then a household name, who, when returning to the Village from a training spin to learn of the horrors of that morning, bemoaned: "This is spoiling a bloody good day's athletics."

It did seem that the then president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, was similarly dismissive of the tragedy. The 84-year-old American millionaire, known as "Slavery Avery" because of his uncompromising insistence on strict adherence to amateurism, resisted calls to suspend the Games for more than a token 24 hours, during which an emotional memorial service was held in the Olympic Stadium.

And so the Munich Games went on, and less than three months after their conclusion the three remaining terrorists were released by the German government after two other Black September members hijacked a Lufthansa plane in the Middle East and threatened to blow it up unless the trio were freed and flown to Libya in exchange for the passengers and crew.

The Israelis, however, were in no mood for such compromise, organising Operation Wrath of God (the subject of the 2005 Spielberg movie Munich, starring Daniel Craig) which pursued and assassinated dozens of Palestinian militants linked to the killing, including two of the three surviving hostage-takers. The third, Jamal al-Gashey, eluded them and remains at large today. He is believed to be hiding in North Africa.

Israeli agents did manage to track down the self-proclaimed mastermind, Abu Daoud.

He was cornered in a Warsaw hotel in 1981 and shot 13 times. Incredibly, he managed to survive, and died nearly 30 years later of kidney disease in Syria.

Now, four decades later, massive, often oppressive security has become as integral a part of all nine subsequent Games as the 100 metres, with Britain, in the wake of the London bombings which came a day after the 2012 Olympics had been won in Singapore, spending more than £1 billion to protect this summer's Games.

Black September is the grim reminder that it has to be worth it.

A tragic history: Protests and violence at the Olympic Games

Munich 1972 was not the first Olympics to be touched by death, disaster or demonstrations, nor the last. Black September was preceded four years earlier by Black Power, when US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the rostrum in Mexico City with heads bowed and raised fists clad in black gloves in a silent protest against racial discrimination in their homeland. But far worse had occurred 10 days before these Games began when at least 300 demonstrators, mainly young students, were massacred in Mexico City's infamous Place of The Three Cultures, machine-gunned by government troops in helicopters. They had been protesting that basic human needs should have been given precedence over a costly Games, during which some 10,000 soldiers were deployed – all disguised as Boy Scouts.

After political boycotts had marred Moscow and Los Angeles, Seoul saw violent student riots leading up to their Games in 1988. Troops dispersed the rioters with tear gas, with hundreds hospitalised.

In 1996, a bomb exploded in Atlanta's Centennial Park, where spectators were watching a concert. One woman was killed and a cameraman died from a heart attack while running to cover the blast, in which 111 were injured.

Before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing there were worldwide demonstrations by human-rights activists over Chinese oppression in Tibet, where two monks set themselves alight.