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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | JIM MURRAY

The Show Goes On

Bomb Blast Has a Sadly Familiar Ring to It

July 28, 1996|JIM MURRAY

They are 2,500 miles, three time zones--and 24 years--away but I think I know what my colleagues are going through in Atlanta this weekend.

Rage, frustration, helplessness, resentment, sadness and, if not despair, something close to it.

Here they were covering an event that is an expression of all that is best in mankind--the youth of the world entering on fields of friendly competition, mingling, enjoying, laughing, exchanging pins, rings, addresses, a world of hope, happiness and heroism.

And then the merchants of death and hate crash the party with their engines of murder and mayhem.

It was in 1972 when our little world of non-winning times, golden fractions and golden medals came crashing down on our heads.

I remember that terrible morning as if it were yesterday. The phone rang in my Munich hotel room in the predawn darkness. I thought it was some colleague reveler, sailing the night away with liters of good German beer.

It wasn't. It was the head of our Bonn bureau at the German capital some miles up the Autobahn.

"About that guerrilla break-in," Joe Alex Morris wanted to know. "Will you need some help? Should I come down there?"

I quickly gathered the facts from him. Before dawn, eight Palestinian guerrillas had leaped the unguarded fence of the Olympic Village and made their way to the Israeli compound, where they knocked gently on the dormitory door, killed two members of the Israeli Olympic squad and took nine others hostage.

"By all means, come down!" I urged Joe Alex. "I can't speak German and I haven't covered a police story in 20 years!"

The next hours were a miasma of trying to keep clear of the security police in a game of hide-and-seek that would have been comical if it hadn't been so desperate. Journalists were banned from the village, but we managed to get in--Howard Cosell, Tony Triola, Shirley Povich and myself. Shirley and I managed to get up on the top floor of the Puerto Rican delegation's compound (he knew the coach), where we could look down on the negotiations between the German police and a terrorist with a stocking covering his face.

Unlike in Atlanta, in Munich we knew who the terrorists were: members of the Black September assassins' group. We knew what they wanted: the release of 200 guerrillas in Israeli prisons.

Golda Meir, Israel's premier, knew that to yield to blackmail would only bring more. Knowing she was sentencing her countrymen-hostages to death, she refused to negotiate. Even if she wept at the decision. They had to die so that Israel might live.

The next 23 hours were a gantlet of rumors, lies, deceptions, disinformation. The Germans were now in a dilemma. They too knew the hostages would die if they gave in to guerrilla demands and let them be flown to Libya. They consented to helicopter them to a nearby airfield, Furstenfeldbruck. Once there, they stormed the helicopters. In the shootout, all the hostages, five of the terrorists and a German policeman were killed.

How did it happen? The Germans in 1972 were eager to lay to rest their country's jackbooted, steel-helmeted image and substitute one of gentle passivism. Their security officers were garbed in baby blue and white buck shoes, looking more like tennis players on Long Island than storm troopers on guard. Their laxity in policing the village--it was later thought that a guard had seen the terrorists vault the fence but thought they were high-spirited athletes returning from a night on the town--prompted Meir to chide them for what she called a "grave error." Their emphasis on the Olympic spirit had proved a "basic misconception" on Germany's part. Lesson: You treat an Olympics as a ticking bomb.

From Munich to Atlanta, the Olympic Games have been riven with controversy, boycott and name-calling. But, until Atlanta, no violence.

Has the cost of the Games gone up too much when it starts adding up to human lives? I think not. We already have enough bars on our windows, locks on our churches, parties we cancel. You don't change the world by hiding from it. In a major irony, my colleague from Munich, Joe Alex Morris, was himself later killed by an assassin's bullet in Tehran.

You think of the Games as mankind's finest hour, its best hope. You want to cover its joyousness, its "world's fastest humans," a Swedish king telling a Jim Thorpe "You are the finest athlete in the world" and Thorpe replying "Thanks, king!" You want Olga Korbut baby dolls on balance beams, marathoners staggering to a finish line, Bob Hayes streaking a relay leg, Jesse Owens showing there's no such thing as a master race, Babe Didrikson showing there's no such thing as a master gender.

You want to tell the killers, "It's no good--you can't win!" No medals for murder.

You want to cover athletes, not terrorists. You want those dark, demonic forces to stay out of this festival of youth. You want to cover what's right with the world, not what's wrong with it.

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