When the International Olympic Committee declined to allow a moment of silence during opening ceremonies in London to mark the fortieth anniversary of the violent deaths of eleven Israeli athletes, I dug back into chapter seventeen of My Wide World, the late Jim McKay’s memoir.
McKay, the most eloquent sports anchor of his day (or any day), writes of being given the job — by default — of reporting on a crime so heinous it destroyed an international ideal. As he points out in the book, the 1972 Munich Olympics were seen as the games of reconciliation: of the Israeli team being cheered during the opening ceremonies in a city that had been the birthplace of the Nazi movement; and of Olga Korbut, the 17-year-old, 83-pound Soviet gymnast who melted cold-war hearts. For a moment, international tensions dissolved, and humanity triumphed. How naïve a notion. For suddenly, as McKay recalls it in such detail, his focus turned to the assault by the Black September Movement, and attempts throughout the long day and night to free their hostages at the Olympic Village and then at a Munich air base.
McKay describes the hooded kidnapers. And at the same time he can see on other studio monitors sports events taking place. “These now seemed insanely irrelevant — a volleyball game, the genteel dressage horsemanship event at Nymphemburg Palace, American heavyweight Duane Bobick being mauled by the Cuban, Teofilo Stevenson. What had been important and exciting yesterday seemed almost like blasphemy today. Why were the games still going on?”
I stayed up all night watching, as McKay tried to account for what was happening. I remember the final minutes exactly as he does — how at first it was reported by authorities that the athletes may have escaped at the air base, where German sharpshooters tried to rescue them. But then, after being handed new information, the anchor told the television audience, “That report may have been too optimistic.” And then finally, a weary and heartbroken McKay provided the end of the story in three words. “They’re all gone.”
The next morning, as I drove my Volkswagen bug, I paid no attention to the road, and hit an oncoming car. Nobody was injured, but Munich’s madness had hit home.
Yesterday, the IOC and the British prime minister gathered to pay tribute to the dead Israeli athletes. But it wasn’t enough for many who remember, and I know that McKay would say the tepid response is in character. Because in 1972, the Games went on. In his memoir, McKay pounds away at that move. But he also records the dignified aftermath of that violent night, at the stadium the next day, when Beethoven was performed by the city’s orchestra and when Israeli authorities were invited to speak:
“The lesson,” McKay writes, “was like a Medieval morality play. Two men in yarmulkas spoke without bitterness, thanking their hosts for trying to save the hostages even though, in the end, it could not have turned out worse.
“When the last Olympics were held in this country, men in yarmulkas were being beaten and thrown into concentration camps. Now, they stood like mankind’s conscience, reminders of the past even as they were symbols of a terrible present.”