Remembering The 1972 Olympic Massacre

Sep 5, 2013
Originally published on September 5, 2013 4:56 pm

As the International Olympic Committee meets to decide whether Tokyo, Istanbul or Madrid will host the 2020 summer Olympics, we look back to a terrible moment in Olympic history.

On September 5, 1972, Palestinian terrorists stormed into the apartment where 11 Israeli athletes were staying in Munich.

Two men were killed and the other nine were taken hostage. By the time the crisis ended, all of them were dead.

American marathon runner Kenny Moore and his roommate Frank Shorter were staying in a nearby apartment.

Moore recalls the events that day in an oral history that also features the words of Jim McKay, who covered the crisis for ABC.

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The International Olympic Committee is meeting in Argentina to pick the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics. The finalists are Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid. The committee will vote on Saturday to decide the winner. On Sunday, the committee will decide whether to return sports such as wrestling, softball and baseball to the 2020 games. Then, next Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee will elect a new president to replace Jacques Rogge. But today we want to look back on some Olympic history.


JIM MCKAY: OK. They just cued the doves. Here they come. There go the Bavarian doves, 5,000 of them, symbolizing peace, brotherhood, sportsmanship, which is certainly much in evidence here today.

CHAKRABARTI: That's ABC's Jim McKay at the opening ceremony for the 1972 Munich Olympics, where the peace, brotherhood and sportsmanship were shattered by a crisis that started on this day, September 5, 41 years ago. It's an especially painful anniversary for the people of Israel, and this year it falls amid the Jewish new year.


MCKAY: Good afternoon. I'm Jim McKay, speaking to you live at this moment from ABC headquarters, just outside the Olympic Village in Munich, West Germany.

CHAKRABARTI: Palestinian terrorists had stormed into the apartment where 11 Israeli athletes were staying. Two of the athletes were killed immediately, and the other nine were taken hostage. In the end, they were also killed, along with five of the terrorists and a West German policeman in a shootout at the airport.

Marathon runner Kenny Moore was a member of the U.S. team in Munich. Moore and a fellow marathoner, Frank Shorter, were asleep in the Olympic Village when the hostage crisis began.

KENNY MOORE: Frank heard something that sounded like a door slamming; it awakened him enough to make him realize that that wasn't a normal thing at that hour, it was about 4:45 in the morning. And he felt later that that was a gunshot when he put things together.

A few minutes later there was a pounding on the coach's, track coach's door downstairs on the first floor. And our track coach, Bill Bowerman, opened it, and before him there was an Israeli race walker, Shaul Ladany. He said: Can I come in? Can I stay here? And we all said: What for? And he said: The Arabs are in our building.

And Bill said: Well, tell them to get out. And Ladany said: They've shot some of our people. I got out through a window. And then Bowerman said later that changed the whole complexion. He grabbed Ladany and drew him into the safety of the room, sat down and got out of him what he knew. He had escaped when someone had started screaming, get out, get out.

And all the Israelis were - they all had military training. They all responded to orders very well. A lot of people got out when they first attacked the building. And so when Bill called our American embassy, said he didn't know what the situation quite was, but that across the street from us the armed Arabs had moved into the Israeli quarters and that we had Jewish kids in the building, he listed a bunch of them - Mark Spitz was one - said they needed security, and 30 minutes later there were Marines in U.S. - to the entrance of the U.S. building, and in the halls. Bowerman was later reprimanded for that, for bringing Marines in, but by that time everybody knew we had done the right thing.


MCKAY: The peace of what had been called the serene Olympics was shattered just before dawn this morning, about 5:00, when Arab terrorists armed with submachine guns, faces blackened, climbed a fence, went to the headquarters of the Israeli team and immediately killed one man. They've been holding 14 others hostage since then, and the latest report is that one more has been killed.

MOORE: It's interesting to look back and realize that. And until then, and I was 28 - that was my 29th year on Earth - I had believed the Olympics immune somehow to the threats of the larger world. And it was an illusion. It was the highest degree of wishful thinking. But it had been a hell of a strong illusion, and it just rocked me personally to have that shattered.

And I remember sharing that feeling with Steve Prefontaine, also on the team, just remember him raging about the blindness of the terrorists, at what he felt was just a sheer malignant gall as to come in here and - because these were our games. He said anybody who would murder us for some demented cause, no matter what it was, just proves that he can't understand what it is that we do.


MCKAY: We've just gotten the final word. When I was a kid, my father used to say, our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They've now said that there were 11 hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning. Nine were killed at the airport tonight. They're all gone.

MOORE: After the Israelis were killed, the reporters had gathered around the locked outer gates of the airport. And by 11:00 in the evening, someone with Olympic insignia - no one really knows who - came to the fence and shouted all are saved, all are saved. And so that was the word that went around the world. The German government spokesman repeated it. Everybody in the newspapers repeated it, printed it. We saw papers, the early editions, and it was only about 2:00 a.m. that the German armed forces returned with the truth. I remembered feeling, what's the use?

A friend of mine, Miguel Ceriman(ph), who's a Dutch 5,000 meter runner, a wonderfully moral man, went home without competing, even before the announcement the next day that the games would continue because he said if you throw a party and gunman comes in and murders a dozen guests, you don't break out another keg and go on with the party.

And Bill Bowerman would never be more eloquent than what he was in conveying the necessity of the games to go on. I remember him saying from the Olympics - what was it - from 776 B.C. to the 393 A.D., which is like 1,200 years, Olympians laid down their arms to take part in the games. They knew there's more honor in outrunning a man than in killing him. And so one by one, with time and reminders like that, we came one by one really not only to see the truth in that but to feel it, feel a part of it.

I remember Frank saying later - Frank Shorter - the day that we watched as the hostages were held and the day of the memorial service, we went through the stages humans go through, and stress. We went from denial to anger to grief and to resolve, and then we had to decide kind of what to do with that resolve. Frank was the eloquent one then. He said we have to spread the word by performance that barbarism only makes Olympians stronger. We have to say this - as scared as I get, now let's go run.

CHAKRABARTI: And that's exactly what they did. Five days later, Kenny Moore, whom you just heard, and his roommate, Frank Shorter, ran the marathon in the '72 Munich games. Moore finished fourth. Shorter won the gold, and no American man has won it since.



From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.