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Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016

Gray Matters: The Olympics

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sometime before the opening of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, I was struck with an inspiration.

Knowing our nephew, Dave Dorr, retired sports writer for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and Sporting News, had covered nine Olympics, six Winter Olympics and three Summer ones, I decided to asked him if he would recount some of his memorable experiences in a couple of guest Gray Matters.

I am sure you will be as delighted as I am that he said yes. The first of these appears today and the second will come next week.

Suddenly, the world was turned upside down. I awoke to a burning candle atop a TV set at the pension in which I was staying in the tiny Bavarian town of Ruhpolding.

Barbara, the owner, spoke only a smattering of English. Gesturing, she struggled to tell me there had been killings at the Olympics in Munich. Killings? But weren't the Olympic Games supposed to be a safe haven, a magical playground, a two-week window of international truce?

The candle? She lit it to honor those who were savagely murdered on Sept. 5, 1972, in an act of terrorism that would forever change the face of the Olympics. I drove quickly the 70 miles on the autobahn to Munich in a Volkswagen Beetle I'd rented, unprepared for what awaited me.

The world, I learned, was put on hold by a series of horrific events that began with members of the Black September, a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, scaling a 6 1/2-foot fence ringing the Olympic Village at 4 a.m. They stormed the first-floor apartment in the Village where the delegation from Israel was housed. They seized hostages at gunpoint, killing two, and demanded the release of 234 Arab prisoners in Israeli prisons as well as a Lufthansa 727 to flee to Cairo, Egypt.

Everything came to a tragic conclusion at a military airfield 12 miles away in the Munich suburb of Furstenfeldbruck with the deaths of nine more Israeli athletes and coaches. On ABC, a broadcaster told a stunned American TV audience: "They're all gone." Five terrorists and one policeman also died.

In what was bitter irony, Jewish blood had once again been spilled on German soil, the very memory of which was the reason why Germany had sought these Olympics to show the world it had repudiated swastikas and its Nazi past.

Instead, the Games provided the first world stage for modern terrorism and a cruel signal that the Olympics -- supposed to be a place of purity -- were bound up tightly in politics, like it or not. Yasser Arafat's PLO made a political statement that rippled into every corner of the world.

The enduring TV image of Munich for Americans was a terrorist in a ski mask standing on a balcony of the Olympic Village, not the pixie gymnast from the old Soviet Union, Olga Korbut, or Frank Shorter, the first American in 64 years to win a marathon gold medal, or American swimmer Mark Spitz, who won a record seven gold medals, or even Iowan Dan Gable, who lost his wrestling gold medal, only to find to his great relief that it had slipped under a cardboard stay in the bottom of his gym bag.

Spitz was hustled out of Munich because he is Jewish and there was fear he might be a terrorist target. The bodies of the 11 Israelis were flown to Tel Aviv. The Games continued, but they weren't the same. They weren't majestic anymore.

The Olympics would in the years ahead become a politicized powder keg, torn apart by boycotts and the use of performance-enhancing substances, and turned into big business and a money machine by the International Olympic Committee, which owns the Games.

That was the dark side. On the other side was the artistry of the athletes and national pride that tugs at the heartstrings of millions worldwide.

Munich was the first of nine Summer and Winter Olympics I covered as a journalist for the Sporting News and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Little did I know in 1972 that more extraordinary Olympic moments than I could possibly imagine lay ahead for me.