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Spain '92 / A Medal Year : Postscript : '72 Olympics: Where Tragedy, Victory Clashed : Six athletes recall traumatic Munich Games where 11 Israelis were slain.

July 14, 1992|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the organizers of the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich built the main stadium atop the former airfield where Adolf Hitler and Britain's Neville Chamberlain proclaimed "Peace in our time" just one year before the beginning of World War II, the symbolism was not lost on the world.

The Games were to be, as the president of the organizing committee said, "the world's gift of renewed trust in Germany."

On the field of play, those Games produced some of history's most memorable Olympic moments.

American swimmer Mark Spitz, Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut and Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson became sports legends. The Soviet Union beat the United States in a basketball championship game so controversial that it still incites arguments today; U.S. track coaches forgot to tell two of their best sprinters when to show up at the starting line for the 100 meters, and U.S. swimmer Rick DeMont lost his gold medal when he tested positive for a banned stimulant found in his asthma medication.

But all of those events were rendered insignificant on Sept. 5, 1972, when Palestinian terrorists gained admittance to the athletes' village and murdered 11 Israelis. "This was the ultimate unthinkable--terrorism as a spectator sport," Olympic historian John Lucas has written. Thus ended the Germans' illusions about an Olympics they had advertised as "The Serene Games."

Twenty years later, those dramatic Munich Games still stir powerful images for six athletes who were there.

Olga Connolly

Fifteen years after she became a U.S. citizen through her marriage to hammer thrower Harold Connolly, Olga Fikotova Connolly experienced her most cherished Olympic moment since winning a gold medal as a Czechoslovakian discus thrower in 1956. In the 1972 Summer Olympics, her fifth overall and fourth as a member of the U.S. team, she was elected by teammates to carry the American flag in the opening ceremony.

Because of her outspoken stance against U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, U.S. Olympic Committee officials objected to her selection, finally relenting when Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) came to her defense. But the debate did nothing to detract from the honor she felt.

"All the controversy was so insignificant compared to the fact I could carry the flag," she said. "It was very honestly so profound an experience for me, like I had been promoted to a first-class U.S. citizen."

Later during the Munich Games, she was at the center of another controversy when she and other athletes prepared a petition on behalf of world peace that they planned to send to the United Nations. But organizing committee officials would not allow them to distribute it in the athletes' village.

"They said that it would be mixing politics with sports," she said. "After what happened to the Israeli athletes, I thought that was a joke."

Connolly, 59, remains committed to causes. The supervisor of preschool and senior citizens programs at San Pedro's Toberman Settlement House, she also describes herself as a feminist, environmentalist and animal rights activist.

Olga Korbut

"A reporter asked me recently how it feels to be the Babe Ruth or Mohammad Ali of gymnastics, and the question shocked me," Olga Korbut said. "I still don't feel special. Maybe I need another 20 years."

In 1972, Korbut was selected to the Soviet Union's Olympic team as an alternate and competed at Munich only because of an injury to a teammate. But before the Games ended, she won three gold medals, one silver and the hearts of all who watched her.

In a refreshing contrast to her stoic teammates, she presented the human face of a Soviet teen-ager to the world, smiling when she succeeded and crying when she failed. "When I visited the White House later that year, President Nixon told me that I did more to further relations between our two countries than our embassies did in five years," she said.

But she, like most Soviet athletes, was sheltered from politics. The gymnasts left Munich when they finished competing to start a world tour, and authorities did not tell them about the terrorist attack until they returned home several weeks later.

Korbut, 37, now lives in Atlanta, where she coaches young gymnasts. But her life no longer revolves solely around the sport. She established a foundation last year for children from her native Belarus--a former Soviet republic turned independent country--who were contaminated as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Mark Spitz

After winning gold medals in his first five events at Munich, swimmer Mark Spitz almost withdrew from the sixth, the 100-meter freestyle, because he felt he might tarnish his perfect record by losing.

"I was tired," he said. "But if I had not swam that race, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life."

Spitz not only won the race but returned later the same night to add a seventh gold medal--and a seventh world record--in a relay, becoming the most decorated athlete ever in a single Olympics.

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