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Time Gives Munich Citizens Perspective

Olympics: Killing of Israeli athletes is a painful memory but not the only one they have of the 1972 Games.

September 11, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MUNICH, Germany — The deadly hostage-taking incident at the 1972 Olympic Summer Games left an indelible mark on this festive city's collective psyche and has come to symbolize the start of an era in which athletes, like political leaders, are regarded as fair game by extremists.

But time and an ever-more-terrifying world have allowed the disturbing memories of that savage standoff 30 years ago to fade for many here, while the competition's highlights still burn bright.

Today, those here old enough to remember their city's role in playing host to the prestigious Games are more likely to recall the record seven gold medals won by U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz than the 20-hour standoff that ensued when Palestinian gunmen seized Israeli athletes. Captives and captors alike died in a botched firefight meant to free the Israelis.

"People's memories are tarnished by the tragedy, but they are not dominated by it," says Gerhard Merk, now a senior editor at the Abendzeitung daily, where he worked as a police reporter during the fateful Games.

A plaque at the 31 Connollystrasse crime scene commemorates the fallen Israelis, and relatives and civic leaders have attended memorials on previous anniversaries of the confrontation. This month, during the European track and field championships that drew Israeli participants here for the first time since the '72 Games, the visiting athletes paid tribute to the 11 Israelis who were killed.

The experience might be thought to put Munich off to playing host to high-profile events for fear of another disaster. But sociologists as well as civic boosters say the opposite is true. Eager to show itself as a safe and hospitable venue, Munich has bid for and won the rights to host several key sporting events, including the opening game of the 2006 World Cup soccer series.

Some Munich residents attribute the flagging recollections of the '72 Games to the general turn for the worse the world has since taken.

"What happened in Munich bears some similarity to Sept. 11 in that it exposed society to what until then were unimaginable excesses," says sociology professor Armin Nassehi. "Sport had been somewhat protected from this, or at least there had not previously been live media coverage bringing it into every living room."

But shortly after the Olympics, Germany's Red Army Faction launched a two-decade terror spree that quickly eclipsed the Arab-Israeli conflict here. The home-grown left-wing extremists assassinated politicians, kidnapped and killed wealthy business leaders and hijacked airplanes in efforts to free imprisoned comrades, until the last of the hard-core members was killed in a 1993 shootout.

"The '72 Games haven't been a heavy psychological burden here," says Nassehi, "because Germans have long recognized that the world is not a dollhouse."

What remains painful for those old enough to remember, he adds, was its botched culmination. "It was embarrassing that this country that only a few years earlier had occupied and traumatized all of Europe couldn't manage to contain five terrorists without creating a massacre," Nassehi says.

Said Munich Police Director Josef Strasser: "A lot of lessons were learned then." He noted that the Olympics disaster and the Red Army Faction attacks that followed gave rise to Germany's first post-World War II special strike forces, known as GSG-9.

Big crowd-drawing events have since been better protected, Strasser adds, pointing to the millions who flock here for Oktoberfest each autumn. The beer festival was the scene of a September 1980 bombing that killed 10 revelers, but that attack was determined to be the work of a single perpetrator who died in the blast and whose motives were never fathomed.

Security was tight for the European track events, and not only because of the Israeli team's presence. More than 1,000 police patrolled the athletes' quarters at the Olympic Village and barbed wire surrounded the competition venues.

Few here are haunted by the Olympic experience. In fact, there is even another Olympic pitch in the planning stages, although it is a longshot.

Much of the good feelings about mass hospitality likely emanate from the tangible gains brought by the last Games.

"The Olympics were a good push for Munich to upgrade its transport system and integrate rail connections with street cars and subways," says Beate Brennauer, spokeswoman for MVV, the city's public transport network. "Big sports events themselves don't really bring in any money, but they spur improvements to the whole infrastructure that help all kinds of entertainment by making it easier for people to get around."

No special transport projects were necessary to get ready for August's European track competition, but Brennauer says a subway extension and a new street-car stop are under construction to serve a stadium being built for the World Cup in four years.

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