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MUNICH OLYMPICS: 30 YEARS LATER

BLACK September

Long before the Twin Towers fell, dream of security at Games toppled when Arabs murdered 11 Israelis

September 05, 2002|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEL AVIV — Shiran Shamam is 16 years old, black-haired, sensitive, sweet. She never got to touch her grandfather, kiss him, squeal for joy in his big arms. All she knows of him is a grainy black-and-white photo, the official one from the Israeli team rosters, that shows him with a shy smile and raccoon-like circles under his eyes.

Yoseph Gutfreund, Shiran's grandfather, a wrestling referee, was one of 11 Israelis kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972, the games that forever changed the Olympic movement. "All my friends have grandfathers. I don't," she said. "I don't understand that the price he needed to pay for his identity was his life."

Thirty years ago today, the attack unfolded live, televised to a worldwide audience. Overnight, the terrorists achieved their political objective, elevating the Palestinian cause from virtual obscurity. Afterward, the Israeli government spent years tracking down, and killing, anyone it believed connected to the attack; only one of the eight terrorists, Jamal al-Gashey, is believed to be still alive, and living somewhere in the Middle East. At the Olympics, security belatedly became priority No. 1.

Now, the world has seen another televised terrorist attack, last Sept. 11, and now, it is important to remember what happened in Munich--to understand for the future the mistakes of the past and to understand the terrible human toll a terrorist attack exacts. It rips. It sears. It never goes away.

"When they are born, they know about their grandfather," said Shiran's mother, Yael Shamam. "We tell them the story."

It never goes away. Last Sept. 9, the father of Shiran's best friend was killed by a suicide bomber at the railway station in Nahariya, a coastal Israeli town near the Lebanese border. When Shiran came home from the funeral, on Sept. 11, she turned on the TV, only to see the World Trade Center towers burning, then crashing to the ground.

The horror, one thing on top of another, was awesome.

"I really felt like, I can't have my children here in this world. It's crazy. I didn't know how to explain it to myself. I asked my mother, have I gone crazy?" she said. Then she paused, and added: "Thirty years have passed. But the hatred still continues."

A Premonition of Danger

The 1972 Olympic Games were billed as the "Games of Joy." In Munich, the idea was to show the world how things had changed since 1945 and the end of World War II, a war in which the German government had overseen the execution of 6 million Jews.

Two nights before the 28-member Israeli delegation departed for the Games, Ilana Romano and her husband, Yossi, which is what everybody called him, threw a party. She was 26, he was 32. She had seen him on the beach seven years earlier, "someone so strong and so gentle," and now they had three daughters, the oldest 6, the youngest 5 months old, and Ilana Romano was scared--afraid of what might happen, again, to Jews on German soil.

"I told Yossi I was so afraid," Ilana Romano said. "Yossi said, 'Ilana, you are crazy. If Germany prepares something, they do it 100%.' "

The Games began Aug. 26. The Israelis marched in to the Olympic Stadium behind the blue-and-white flag emblazoned with the Star of David, a nation among nations. What was to fear?

For the next few days, as Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut tumbled and American Mark Spitz swam to glory, much of Israel remained consumed with the exploits of Esther Shakhamorov Roth, a sprinter and hurdler. Israel had been sending athletes to the Games for 20 years, since the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki; Roth represented Israel's first legitimate chance for a medal. The thought of a Jew winning a medal at an Olympics in Germany was so delicious the entire country seemed on edge with delight.

On Sept. 1, Roth, racing in a field of eight, won her first-round heat in the women's 100-meter dash. In the second round, later that day, she finished fourth, advancing to the semifinals. In Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, everything stopped when she was running, even the government. Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, said things could wait a minute while they found out how Esther was doing.

The next day, in the second of the two semifinal heats, Roth finished fifth. Only the top four made the finals. Just that fast, she was out.

But only in the dash. The 100-meter hurdles were still to come.

On Sept. 4, Roth finished fourth in the first round, good enough to move on to the second. Her longtime coach, Amitzur Shapira, was waiting for her at the finish line, joy spread wide across his face. Roth was 19, Shapira 40. He had discovered her six years earlier, nurtured her talent, driven her to and from practice because her parents didn't have a car.

Shapira was more than her coach. He was like a father to her, and he was waiting for her expectantly at the finish line. He told her this was the "happiest day of my life."

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