Excerpt: Three Seconds in Munich

The following is an excerpt from Three Seconds in Munich: The Controversial 1972 Olympic Basketball Final by David A. F. Sweet (September 2019).

More than seven thousand athletes from 121 countries gathered at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Though in theory the games were apolitical, they were a great marketing coup for the host city, offering the chance to express to the world one’s best side for two weeks. Thanks to television, Munich held a huge advantage over Berlin, enjoying the ability to beam colorful and happy images around the world.

Terrorism shattered that narrative, usurping those images and replacing them with death and chaos. One day after being the best athlete in the world, in fact, and soon after talking at a press conference about his seven gold medals, [U.S. Swimmer Mark] Spitz—who is Jewish—found himself hustled out of the Olympic Village amid worries he would be the perfect target for the Palestinians.

The unprecedented calamity numbed the U.S. basketball players. Their apartment building sat near the Israelis’. Just days before, Burleson had eaten in the mess hall with a few of those who now were returning to their homeland in coffins.

“I get sick to my stomach when I think back and remember all the good feelings—that the world was watching, showing love and kindness—and then there’s this horrifying attack,” he said. “The athletes’ families were so excited and proud, and all of a sudden their sons or brothers are coming back in caskets. It’s made me very conscious of how fragile life is.”

Noted Ratleff, “It was real sad. It’s hard to go through that. You feel for them. And you reflect on yourself—it could have been us.”

Said Davis, “I grew up quickly. I realized how quickly life can be taken away from you. We were fortunate we weren’t targeted—anything could have happened in that Village because it wasn’t well protected.”

Even though Amdur had been trapped on a hijacked Eastern Airlines plane earlier in 1972 (his account of the ordeal was splashed on the front page of the New York Times), during more than four decades covering and editing stories, his memories of Munich stand out for their sheer horror.

“I found the whole episode to be probably the most disturbing series of events in my journalism career,” he said. “It’s one of those Olympic Games that still lives with me.”

Columnist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, who would later become one of the rare sportswriters to win the Pulitzer Prize, crafted a memorable opening to his column that ran on September 6:

I stood on a rooftop balcony on the Connollystrasse in the Olympic village Tuesday and witnessed an Olympic event Baron de Coubertin never dreamed of and the purpose of which is as arcane to me as the discus, the team foil, the hammer, individual epee, or Greco-Roman wrestling.

An Arab rifle team, arriving late, scorned the small bore rifle, three positions, the free pistol (silhouette) and introduced a new event to the Olympic program—murder.

In the other Times on the East Coast, fellow Pulitzer winner Red Smith wondered if the Olympics had run their course:

These global clambakes have come to have an irresistible attraction as forums for ideological, social, or racial expression. For this reason, they may have outgrown their britches. Perhaps in the future it will be advisable to substitute separate world championships in swimming, track and field, and so on, which could be conducted in a less hysterical climate.

In the past, athletes from totalitarian countries have seized upon the Olympics as an opportunity to defect. During the Pan American Games last summer in Cali, Colombia, a number of Cubans defected and a trainer jumped, fell, or was pushed to his death from the roof of the Cuban team’s dormitory.

Never, of course, has there been anything like today’s terror. Once those gunmen climbed the wire fence around Olympic Village and shot Moshe Weinberg, the Israeli wrestling coach, all the fun and games lost meaning. Mark Spitz and his seven gold medals seemed curiously unimportant. The fact that the American heavyweight, Duane Bobick, got slugged stupid by Cuba’s Teófilo Stevenson mattered to few besides Bobick.

Marie Lefton from Philadelphia served as an usher for horse-riding events during the 1972 games. On the morning of September 6, she put on her Day-Glo orange uniform and left her dormitory with other ushers and headed toward the train station, unsure of what to expect next.

“There’s a newsboy there, like something out of the 1930s,” she said. “He’s holding up the newspaper with the largest headline you’ve ever seen in German: 16 Tote! [dead]. He was crying and handing them out for free. It was such a profoundly tragic moment.”

In the long history of the Olympics, no blueprint existed of how to react to such a tragedy. No longer a handful of athletes running around Greece, competitors from scores of nations traveled tens of thousands of miles to Munich, a city where hundreds of millions of dollars had been spent constructing facilities for the quadrennial event. Canceling the rest of the games would be financially painful for the International Olympic Committee and others and would strip athletes, who had trained for years, of the chance to earn once-in-a-lifetime medals.

Understandably, emotions trumped reason. The U.S. athletes, such as the basketball players, faced a choice. Should they head back to the States, regardless of what Olympic officials decided?

“Our first reaction was just to go home,” said Mike Bantom. “It was just scary the way the German police handled everything. It was bad enough that these guys came in and kidnapped these folks and were going to kill them, but then the German solution seemed to be to shoot everybody. It’s like, well, this is crazy. We need to get the hell out of here.”

Said Bobby Jones, “All I remember thinking in my mind is, ‘Surely the Olympics are over.’”

Recalled McMillen, “Originally I felt the Olympics should be canceled. But that would have held the future Olympics hostage.”

Beyond that, the world was shocked—if not revolted—by Germany’s mismanagement of the entire affair, from the onset of the hostage crisis to the tragic ending at Fürstenfeldbruck. It is hard to point to even one move that made sense or put the hostages closer to freedom. Learning from the Germans’ futility, future Olympics organizing committees started to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on security. One of the biggest outlays occurred in Greece in 2004, when about $1.5 billion was earmarked for the efforts, including seventy thousand police and military personnel.5 In fact, the Athens Games spent more on security than the entire cost of the Munich Olympics. Few cities are even bidding on hosting the games anymore, scared away in part by the expense of security to keep athletes and spectators safe.

Charles Bierbauer, a former senior Washington correspondent for cnn, worked for Westinghouse Radio during the games and was based in Germany. He noticed an immediate impact on security around the country afterward.

“All of a sudden you saw armored cars in embassies around Bonn. At German airports, you’d see police with weapons,” he recalled. “I think it was a watershed in terms of political terrorism. It was such a public venue. A handful of terrorists really captured public attention; everyone knew who Black September was.

“That was a demarcation in terms of public officials and the public at large becoming much more vulnerable. Governments started to approach security much differently. Every time in the United States there’s been an attack, the security parameters expand. They never retreat.”

For German citizens and their leaders, the whole ordeal was a public relations nightmare, thanks to the hell on earth their forefathers had precipitated with the Holocaust. As noted in Munich 1972, “The scenario that unfolded on September 5 could not have been worse: Jews, having been invited to the Federal Republic of Germany and placed under the host country’s protective care, once again faced political murder on German soil.”

Essentially, the final determination of what to do lay in the hands of the person with more Olympic experience than anyone in the world: the IOC’s Avery Brundage. Born in the nineteenth century, the American had competed in the Olympics in Stockholm sixty years before, participating in the pentathlon and decathlon (one of the world’s greatest athletes ever, Jim Thorpe, won both events). In 1928 he became head of the Amateur Athletic Union, which provided the majority of the U.S. basketball Olympians across the decades. He ran the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) for years, championing the controversial decision not to boycott the 1936 games in Berlin in part because during a visit two years before, he was assured there would be no discrimination of Jews. Coubertin wanted Brundage to become part of the IOC; the two men shared great passion for amateur sports and for the Olympic ideal. In 1952 Brundage was elected president of the worldwide organization.

Because of the deaths of the two Israelis in the Olympic Village, already a decision had been made on September 5 to conduct a memorial service in the same spot where the glorious opening ceremony had taken place. No one knew then, of course, that the September 6 memorial would honor an additional nine deceased souls.

Roughly eighty thousand coaches, athletes, citizens, and others trudged into the Olympic Stadium that hot morning, where flags were lowered to half staff. Athletes entered both in civilian clothes and in uniforms.

The Israelis, too, were there. “The stigmata of the ordeal could be seen on the faces of all the survivors,” wrote Serge Groussard in his book The Blood of Israel: “None had slept for the past twenty-nine hours. . . . They were wearing what was at hand. Those who were housed in Block 31 had not been back there since yesterday’s dawn.”

The clash of beauty and solemnity struck onlookers. On a gorgeous morning, armed guards monitored the crowd. While tens of thousands united to mourn the dead, no one from the Arab countries participated, nor did any from the Soviet Union. Strains of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3, “Eroica,” which is designed as a funeral march, began with an oboe solo and mournfully played on.

The Olympic flame still blazed, now surrounded by roses. It was that fire—in Greek mythology, the gift Prometheus had given to human beings, sparking his torture for eternity—that would either be extinguished or keep dancing when the decision on the status of the games was announced that morning.

Ratleff remembered particularly the hush inside the massive venue.

“It was very quiet. The athletes were very respectful. Everybody felt so sorry. You think about what if it was your family or friends.”

Speakers strode to the podium. How the chef de mission of Israel, Shmuel Lalkin, could muster any words after the excruciating day and night is known only to him. During a tour before the games, he was surprised and dismayed that the Israeli delegation had been placed on the first floor in the Olympic Village. In Connollystrasse 31 when the terrorists entered, he heard the gunshots. Beset by grief that morning, Lalkin spoke eloquently:

The Israelis came to Munich for the Games of the XXth Olympiad in the spirit of Olympic brotherhood, friendship, fairness and peace in common with athletes of all the world. Shaken to the core, we mourn the barbaric profanation of the Olympic spirit caused by the malicious raid by terrorists, in which eleven of our athletes were murdered in a criminal fashion. Here are their names:

Berger, David

Halfin, Elizer

Friedmann, ZeevGotfreund, Josef

Kahat, Schur

Romano, Josef

Shapira, Arnitzur

Slavin, Mark

Spitzer, Andre

Springer, Jacob

Weinberg, Moshe

They were brave and true comrades in sport who died in the prime of their lives. Such a monstrous crime stands without precedent in the history of the Olympic Games and is most forcefully condemned by all civilized men. We deeply mourn our dead and express our deepest sympathy to their families. . . . I can assure you, that despite this base crime the sportsmen of Israel will continue to take part in the Olympic contests in the spirit of brotherhood and fairness. The Israeli delegation leaves this place deeply shocked. We thank all of you for the solidarity you have shown us.

More than an hour into the memorial service, Brundage ascended the podium. Wrote E. J. Kahn of the New Yorker, “Some of his remarks were curiously inappropriate. He alluded to his old enemy commercialism, which seemed all the more irrelevant considering that every ticket to these supposedly uncontaminated Games bears on its back advertising for Mercedes-Benz— the make of car, as it happens, that Brundage and his fellow officials ride around in.”

Noted Bobby Jones, “As a naïve young man, it was my first understanding that sports was big business.”

Brundage—whose words were translated into German and French—also equated the eleven deaths with the fact that Rhodesia had been voted out of the games four days before they began; African nations and others had threatened to boycott if Rhodesia (known later as Zimbabwe) was allowed to compete, alleging racism in the country and other ills.

“Sadly, the greater and more important the Olympic Games become, the more they are open to commercial, political and now criminal pressure,” Brundage said. “The games of the 20th Olympiad have been subjected to two savage attacks. We lost the Rhodesian battle against naked political blackmail.”

Tom McMillen was stunned.

“Brundage made a callous statement—the equivalence to Rhodesia was so far-fetched it made players question his judgment.”

Said Brundage after the games, “I was severely criticized for that . . . but the fact is that I did it on purpose. I had to. There was a principle involved and altho [sic] it was a terrible thing that some lives were lost, principles are just as important as human lives.”

Whatever the case, the most important words were uttered by Brundage moments later. Said he, in five of the most momentous words ever uttered at the Olympics, “The Games must go on.”

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