David Hemery remembers Munich 1972

'It was a quiet morning ... until I turned on the TV'

Wednesday 04 March 2009 01:00

Munich in 1972 was the first time terrorism hit the Olympics. As a British athlete there, it was shocking that these extremist activities were happening virtually outside the door.

The first I knew that anything was wrong was when I switched on the television in the village dormitory on the morning of 5 September. A couple of days before I'd won bronze in the 400m hurdles. I still had the 4x400m relay to come. It was a quiet morning until I turned on the TV.

There were live pictures of a hostage situation, from a block away. I don't recall where the feed came from, maybe the BBC. But this was happening about 100 metres away, with one accommodation block between ours and where it was unfolding.

My recollection is that the immediate vicinity was cordoned off but we could come and go, although I don't remember leaving the dorm that day. Security had been minimal, deliberately so. The Germans wanted a relaxed atmosphere to take a step away from their militaristic past.

We found out what was happening from the television, then confirmed it by looking out the window. That night on TV, we watched the helicopters taking the terrorists and hostages to the airport. And outside the window, there they were.

We only discovered the full story in the next day or so, that two Israelis had been killed at the scene, and that the German rescue plan went wrong at the airport and the others were killed. The Germans were devastated because it was Israelis who were the victims. They'd wanted the Games to demonstrate the new inclusiveness of modern Germany, with the past in the past.

As I recall, nobody asked for our views as athletes about whether the Games should go on. We talked informally amongst ourselves. The mood in the camp was sombre and we spoke of little else.

My view was that if you stopped the Games, then you lost what was intrinsically good: the bringing together of the world's youth through sport. You'd have a double negative; the negative of terrorism compounded by the negative of it achieving its aim. That was my view.

I don't know if there was a discussion by British officials about whether we should go home but I assume there was, and they told us quite soon afterwards we'd be staying.

There was a memorial service in the Olympic Stadium on 6 September with over 80,000 spectators and a few thousand of the athletes, by no means all of them. I didn't go, and looking back on it today, I can't believe I didn't go. Why would I not? I don't know why I didn't.

It's not that I didn't honour those killed or feel sorrow for the situation because I did. But nobody told us what to do, I suppose we needed to maintain our focus. You don't want to let your team-mates down. You want to know that there is a way for life to go on. We went on to win silver in the 4x400m relay. It didn't feel like an anti-climax. It is why we were there. For sport.

As told to Nick Harris

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