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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Munich Massacre Forever Ended the Innocence

History: The Games could never be the same after terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes in 1972.

July 28, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — The sanctity and serenity of the Olympic Games were split early in the morning of Sept. 5, 1972, when Palestinian commandos, some dressed as athletes, scaled an eight-foot wire fence in the Olympic athletes' village at Munich, carrying bags stuffed with submachine guns.

The eight men advanced on Building 31, which housed the men in the Israeli delegation. At 4:55 a.m. Moshe Weinberg, the Israeli wrestling coach, answered a knock on his door. A voice called out in German, "Is this the Israeli team?"

Weinberg opened the door a crack, saw a gun and threw himself against the door. He shouted for his sleeping roommate to run. The terrorists fired bursts through the door, splintering it and killing Weinberg instantly.

Throughout the Israeli quarters, athletes scrambled. Some escaped by diving through windows. Weightlifters prevented the terrorists from entering their room by barricading the door with their bodies.

In another room, another weightlifter, Joseph Romano, fought the attackers with a small knife. He was shot and killed.

In the melee, six of 15 surviving Israelis managed to escape the building. The nine who remained were roped together and held as hostages in a 24-hour drama that unfolded as the world watched on television.

The group holding the nine men identified itself as Black September, an aptly named splinter group of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Black September demanded that the Israeli government release 200 Arabs being held in jail or the nine would be executed.

Their leader negotiated with the world while wearing a black ski mask and holding a submachine gun. Negotiations progressed at first, then broke down, the athletes in the village knowing little of the drama, except that for the first time in Olympic history, competition was suspended.

Bruce Jenner, then a 22-year-old decathlete at his first Olympics, was staying two buildings away from the Israelis. He said he was unaware that anything was wrong until he got up in the morning and met runner Steve Prefontaine in the bathroom.

"He had just come back from a morning run," Jenner said. "He said, 'Something is going on outside.' We went out to look. There was a tank parked outside, there were helicopters in the air and military guys with guns all over the place. It had become a fortress. It didn't look like that when I went to bed."

Jenner ran into a friend staying in the building across from where the hostages were being held.

"He told me he could see everything from his room. Now, I'm young, I wanted to see what was going on. So we went to his room, which was about 40 yards across a courtyard from the Israeli building. I crawled on my knees out on a porch. I stuck my head up and I saw the guy. The man with the ski mask. I said, 'I've seen enough.' I got out of there."

All day, athletes watched from their balcony vantage points as the siege wore on. Being held hostage were two wrestlers, two weightlifters, a shooting coach, a fencing coach, a track coach, a weightlifting referee and a wrestling referee. The youngest was 18.

About 10 p.m., the hostages and terrorists emerged from an underground passageway in the village and boarded a bus. Outside, the group boarded three helicopters bound for Furstenfeldbruck military airport 15 miles west of Munich. There, they were to board a Boeing 707 bound for Cairo.

But West German authorities had laid an ambush at the airport and as two terrorists walked from the helicopters to inspect the plane, they were shot and killed by sharpshooters on surrounding buildings.

The Arabs returned fire and an hourlong gun battle ensued. One of the terrorists rolled a hand grenade under one of the helicopters holding the bound and blindfolded Israelis. The helicopter exploded and burned.

When the shooting ended, all nine hostages were dead, as were five of the eight terrorists. One German police officer was killed.

Much of the innocence of the Olympic spirit was extinguished that night.

Anyone who was there was forever affected. Former U.S. Congressman Tom McMillen was a 20-year-old basketball player in Munich. He told NBC's Tom Brokaw Saturday that he had not attended the Olympic Games in 24 years, in part because of the psychological impact of the massacre. The Atlanta Olympics are his first since Munich.

"Part [of the reason] was the feeling I took out of Munich," McMillen said. "It hit me so hard because I was such an idealistic 20-year-old, and to see this kind of event occur in an Olympics was very disturbing for me."

A memorial service was held the next day, attended by 80,000 people, and a pall descended on the Games. Shotputter Maren Seidler participated in three Olympics and said everything changed after Munich.

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