Jack Chivo: Why the Munich Olympics massacre remains fresh in my mind
With the London Olympics just around the corner, memories of the Munich 1972 Olympiad—are still fresh in my mind.
It was unfortunately marred by the worst incident of any such Games, both in modern times or in antiquity, and I was there when everything happened.
It was the day that the Olympic ideals forever lost their innocence.
September 5, 1972, started for me as any other day during the Munich Games, where I was part of the part of the team of Olympic correspondents in the Central News Room (CNR) of a major Munich-based U.S. media organization.
We were broadcasting programs for listeners behind the Iron Curtain. My job for that week was to review and compile news and commentaries from major newspapers in German-speaking countries in the area—West Germany, Austria and Switzerland—all related to the 20th Olympiad, hosted by Germany.
It was the first time since 1936 that the country was bestowed with such an honour.
Having already covered the 1968 Olympics as a very young correspondent, it was kind of routine—even easier, because everything was happening around us in the city and its outskirts.
Around 4 a.m., I walked to work as usual when on the early morning shift from my home about a mile away. I arrived shortly after 4.30 a.m. in the massive building located next to the famous English Garden to start reviewing the pages of the six major German -anguage newspapers from the area
I was looking for stories which might interest editors from the dozen or so ethnic programs in our organization for their daily press reviews.
Usually, the night shifts in the CNR were lightly staffed, but, because of the Olympics, there were a few dozen correspondents, copy writers and editors around. As a reformed smoker, the first thing hitting me again were the grey clouds of heavy smoke and the stench from hundreds of cigarettes and cigars burned overnight, which not even the air conditioning system was able to remove.
Fortunately, I had my private office in a corner of the Central News Room, which I shared with my secretary, Helga.
So after a short while feeling my lungs filled with second-hand smoke, a concept not widely accepted then, I took refuge there to type my summary of the media reporting, asking Helga to keep an eye on the teletype machines in front of my room. They were connected to the German News Agency and Agence France Press.
It must have been well before 6 a.m. when I suddenly heard a loud bang on my door. It appeared as though the door had flown off its hinges while Helga was coming in, white-faced and yelling at me, "Geiseln" (Hostages).
For some reason, I did not need further details, as I felt in my guts that the hostages must be Israelis and that Palestinian terrorists were behind the attack.
Only a few weeks earlier, I had attended a press conference with the German security team, where the officer in charge rejected the idea of any special antiterror measures, because these were supposed to be "friendly games". And, as he said, "Never in the thousands years history of the Olympic Games was there ever any incident involving athletes, and we do not think that anyone would breach the millennial-long Olympic Peace."
His remarks left me with a bad feeling and lots of doubts.
This feeling was reinforced when, one day before the Games started, I was going to the Olympic Village for an interview carrying my portable but heavy tape recorder, and the guard waved me through without checking my ID.
When I jokingly asked why he trusted me, he replied that he had seen me before and I "looked like a reporter". These were the good old days when Olympic peace meant exactly this—peace.
Once I jumped out of my chair and rushed outside, I looked around and the newsroom was crowded with the arriving morning shift. The night reporters were still there, the dozen or so television screens previously kept dark were all now illuminated and the sounds were deafening.
Everyone was rushing around and it felt like four years earlier, during the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Eastern Bloc troops.
Only then it was far away, but this was happening in our back yard.
Nobody was leaving and many desks were now occupied by two reporters, with spare typewriters being brought in from the storage, while ladies from the cafeteria were coming with huge trays of sandwiches and big urns of coffee, for no one had the time to go downstairs for a break.
While my department editor left to attend a briefing at the police headquarters, I was in charge of the German media reporting, helped by my colleague Gunther. He was supposed to go home after finishing work, but stayed behind like many others, listening, reading, and typing at a furious pace.
Editors from the ethnic news desks were crowding our rooms, not waiting in their offices for our teletyped messages, but looking over our shoulders for the freshest pieces of information they could broadcast live to listeners all over East Europe and beyond.
It was mayhem mixed with anger, especially among our German colleagues and staff. They had been thrilled for many months that Germany was again recognized as a valuable member of the international community, only to have the Games poisoned by a group of fanatic terrorists for whom Olympic ideals were irrelevant as long as they could pursue their destructive agenda.
For many hours everybody worked frantically while negotiations between the German government and the terrorists continued. By the afternoon, it appeared that a negotiated solution was possible—meeting the demands of the hostage takers for the release of hundreds of terrorists jailed around the world, plus a huge amount of money. Some elderly colleagues who had been there for 12 hours, or more, left for home, but I stayed behind, being a much younger person.
With the evening approaching, my boss Iain told me to go home. But after more than 15 hours of uninterrupted work, I felt full of energy and couldn't leave.
Suddenly, about one hour later, an announcement came on the local Bavarian television station. The interior minster was telling everyone that he had just been informed that the hostage situation was over at a small airport at the outskirts of Munich, with all Israelis free and the terrorists either dead or captured.
The whole newsroom erupted in cheers, and now it was time to finally leave for home to my wife and my little son. I did not want to walk, and from the front desk I ordered a cab, but it took about 10 minutes until it arrived.
Once inside, I asked the driver to switch off the radio. I couldn't stand any more news. When I arrived in front of our house, my wife was at the entrance waiting for me.
I feared that something was not OK, and my premonition was correct. She asked the driver to wait, then told me with tears running down her face that Iain had just called because the news about the freeing of the hostages was false. It was due to a misunderstanding between the minister and one of his men in the field, and that I was asked to return to work without delay, which I did.
The rest, as it is often said, is history. The German police, unprepared, without any contingency plans, with no special units or sharpshooters available, had botched the rescue attempt, leaving all Israeli hostages, a number of hijackers, and some policemen dead, with many other wounded. It was a total disaster.
When I left the next morning, the announcement came that the Games were being suspended. The whole Olympic community, along with the entire civilized world was in mourning, of course, with the expected reaction of joy in some parts of the world, where humanity and compassion were and still are unknown feelings.
Everybody expected that the Olympics would be cancelled, or at least postponed for a few more days. But IOC president Avery Brundage of the United States, an old right-wing Germanophile instrumental in awarding the 1936 Games to Nazi Germany, decided to resume to competition the very next day, in spite of appeals from IOC members and others, thus showing his true colours.
After the Munich Games, Brundage left the IOC and his native land, married a lady in Germany and moved there, where he died in 1975.
For me and a few other colleagues, the Games were, however, over. I requested to be relieved from my position in the Olympic correspondents group, which was granted, and I continued to report about any other events, but not the Olympics.
Soon thereafter, the German government caved in again and released the two remaining terrorists still in jail after a German plane had been hijacked.
As an interesting footnote, a few years later it was revealed that the Palestinians had been helped by a group of fanatic local German extreme leftist terrorists, the infamous Red Action Brigade, known for a string of kidnappings, assassinations, bombings, and destruction over a decade. Its members had been "training" in Middle East terror camps, which provided them with false identities, weapons, ammunition, and safe houses before the attack.
But the newest revelation, only a few weeks ago in June 2012, came from the most famous German magazine, Der Spiegel, which is the equivalent of Time magazine in that country. It took everyone by surprise.
Following an investigation by its reporters, the magazine disclosed that besides the Red Action Brigade, the Palestinians also had logistic and material supports from a neo-Nazi group in Germany, who provided them with automobiles and transportation, with the full knowledge of the German internal spy agency, who was monitoring their activities. One of the neo-Nazis involved, now a "reformed" writer of police novels, admitted to his role of driving the terrorists around, while pretending that he did not know their ultimate goals.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to note, as Der Spiegel did, the unholy alliance of extreme left-wing and right-wing activists with Palestinian terror groups, a deadly triangle of like-minded criminals and blackmailers, covering their acts with a thin political veneer.
There are those who wonder if the massacre could have been prevented if the German spy agency would have informed the Olympic security team or the Munich police of their findings. But this was 40 years ago, and I assume that there still are lots of mysterious aspects of this awful event even now hidden from public knowledge.
Jack Chivo is a retired journalist living in West Vancouver.