Black September reminds us that the £1 billion London 2012 security budget is worthwhile
Monday, 16 July 2012
Wherever the overall responsibility lies for the failure to hire sufficient security guards, the appointed providers G4S should have received a P45 when the deficiency was revealed.
Instead it is apparently now down to the Government's Plan B, in which war-weary troops and hastily-trained students make up the numbers to help ensure the Games protection is adequate. No gold medals there then.
Let's hoped it all works, because this year brings an ominous reminder of what can happen if it doesn't – the grim anniversary of a happening that changed the Olympics for ever; one that is the reason why exactly 40 years on London's Games will be locked in the biggest, most expensive and now most controversial security clamp-down in history.
It also spawned the two words which remain indelibly scarred on the face of sport: Black September.
I was there on that dreadful day of Tuesday September 5 1972.
Dawn was breaking in Munich, with the Olympic Games into their second week.
It was just after 4am when eight hooded members of the Black September Palestinian terrorist organisation jumped over the eight-foot high fence that encircled the Olympic Village and headed for 31 Connollystraße, the block which housed the male Israeli athletes, coaches and officials. The Munich Massacre was about to tear the Olympics apart.
They rounded up those sleeping in two of the apartments, several startled Israelis, still in vest and pants, fought back. Two were killed instantly and two more managed to escape out of windows. But nine were taken hostage.
Within an hour news of the attack had spread around the world. I had been woken by a colleague knocking on the door my room in the Media Village, which overlooked the athletes' compound, yelling: "Someone's been shot dead in the Olympic Village."
We hurried to the perimeter fence of the Village, as close to the scene as the ring of police and militia would, allow, and the longest, most dreadful day I have ever experienced in over half-a-century as a journalist, began to unfold. Twenty four hours of unremitting tension and high drama which encompassed disbelief that such a terrible thing could be happening, anguish for those athletes, an hour of heart-lifting hope dashed by utter confusion and finally despair.
In the blinding early morning sunlight you could make out armed polizei crouched around the building, some standing on the roof. It was also possible to see one or two balaclaved terrorists framed in the windows, flourishing machine guns.
One of them dropped a list of their demands out a window; they wanted 234 prisoners released from Israeli prisons and two from German prisons by 9am.
Negotiators were able to extend the deadline initially to noon and then 5pm, but by then the terrorists realised those demands were not going to be met.
They asked for two planes to fly both themselves and the hostages to Cairo, where they hoped to begin fresh negotiations with the Egyptians as intermediaries.
The Germans intimated that they had agreed, but their security forces were determined not to allow the terrorists to leave the country. They planned to attack them on the way to the airport, but the terrorists discovered this while watching the television newscasts in the Israeli apartments.
As dusk fell we looked into the sky and saw two helicopters heading from the Village. It transpired they were transporting terrorists and hostages to Munich's military airfield at Fürstenfeldbruck.
At around 10.30am two bright orange flashes lit up the darkened sky.
The Germans had laid an ambush. Five snipers were positioned around the tarmac and began to fire as the terrorists emerged from the helicopters.
The terrorists fired back. Two of them, and one policeman were killed. Then a terrorist tossed a grenade into a helicopter where several of the hostages were bound and blindfolded. Other Israelis died when another terrorist jumped into the second helicopter and raked them with machine gun fire.
Five Palestinians died in the gun battle which followed and three were captured and taken into custody. All nine of the remaining Israel hostages had perished.
However, the tragedy was compounded by an unbelievable, unforgiveable error. Back at the media centre the world's press, television and radio were been erroneously informed in the early hours on Wednesday that all the hostages were safe. The news was flashed around the world and for an hour that was what we and the world believed, among them, back in Israel, the relieved relatives of the slain athletes.
How this ghastly mistake happened has never been fully understood, although one assumes it surely was not a deliberate deception but an inexplicable breakdown in communications of the usual Teuton ultra-efficiency.
Later that day the remaining Israeli contingent and Jewish athletes from other nations were evacuated from the Games village for their own security. Some returned home.
The choice of Munich some 30 years after World War I had always been controversial. Especially as the Bavarian capital had been so closely associated with the rise of the Nazi Party. The first concentration camp, Dachau, was located on Munich's outskirts, and the Israeli team had visited the site just before the Opening Ceremony.
How ironic, that tight security at the Games appeared to have been relaxed after a veteran a British journalist had complained that "it is easier to get into Dachau than it is the Olympic Village".
While those Munich Games have been irrevocably despoiled, there were many aspects of them that should be remembered for more uplifting reasons: the swimmer Mark Spitz's – himself Jewish – winning a record seven gold medals; the delightful teenager Olga Korbut (pictured below), whose elfin-like precocity on the beams and bars reminded us that Soviet sporting womanhood was not all bulk and biceps; and Britain's Mary Peters joyously capturing the ultimate golden prize in the pentathlon.
Yet I still shudder when recalling the words of one British athlete, then a household name, who, when returning to the Village from a training spin to learn of the horrors of that morning, bemoaned: "This is spoiling a bloody good day's athletics."
It did seem that the then autocratic President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Avery Brundage was similarly unfeeling over of the tragedy. The 84-year-old American millionaire known as "Slavery Avery" because of his uncompromising insistence on strict adherence to amateurism, resisted calls to suspend the Games for more than a token 24 hours during which an emotional memorial service was held in the Olympic Stadium.
And so the Munich Games proceeded, and less than three months after their conclusion the three remaining terrorists were released by the German Government after two other Black September members hijacked a Lufthansa plane in the Middle East and threatened to blow it up unless the trio were freed and flown to Libya in exchange for the passengers and crew.
The Israelis, however, were in no mood for such compromise, organising Operation Wrath of God (now the subject of the Spielberg movie Munich, starring Daniel Craig) which pursued and assassinated dozens of Palestinian militants linked to the killing, including two of the three surviving hostage takers. The third, Jamal Al-Gashey, eluded them and remains at large today. He is believed to be hiding in North Africa.
Israeli agents did manage to track down the self-proclaimed mastermind, Abu Daoud. He was cornered in a Warsaw hotel in 1981 and shot 13 times. He managed to survive, and died nearly 30 years later of kidney disease in Syria.
As it happened, Munich 1972 was not the first Olympics to be disfigured by death, disaster or demonstrations, nor the last.
Black September had been preceded four years earlier by Black Power, when medal-winning American sprinters Tommie Smith (pictured above, centre) and John Carlos (pictured above, right) stood on the rostrum in Mexico City each with heads bowed and raised fists encased in a black glove in a silent protest against racial discrimination in their homeland.
But far, far worse had occurred ten days before these Games began when at least 300 demonstrators, mainly young students, were massacred in the infamous Place of The Three Cultures, machine gunned by Government troops from helicopters hovering above. They had been protesting that basic human needs should have been given precedence over a costly Games during which some 10,000 soldiers were deployed around Olympic venues – all disguised as boy scouts!
After political boycotts had marred the previous two Olympics in Moscow and Los Angeles, Seoul also saw violent student riots leading up to their Games at the 1988 Games. Troops had to be called in to disperse them with tear gas, and hundreds were hospitalised.
The only other act of "terrorism" apart from Munich came in 1966 when a bomb left in a bag exploded in Atlanta's Centennial Park (pictured below), the "town square" of the Games where spectators were watching a concert. One woman was killed and, a cameraman died from a heart attack while running to cover the blast in which 111 were injured.
One crazed zealot was responsible for what President Clinton called "an evil act of terrorism". The lone bomber, American Eric Rudolph, escaped and was a fugitive for five years before being captured and given four life sentences without parole for this and other bombings. He said he was angry at the Government and hoped the Olympics would be cancelled.
Before the last Olympics in Beijing there were worldwide demonstrations by human rights activists and over Chinese oppression in Tibet, where two Tibetan monks set themselves alight.
But it's the events during those 18 terrible hours of September 5 1972 which remain most deeply lodged in the consciousness.
Now, four decades later, massive, often oppressive security has become as essential a part of all nine subsequent Games as drugs testing, and, with Britain, in the wake of the London bombings which came a day after the 2012 Olympics had been won in Singapore, spending more than £1 billion ($1.6 billion/€1.3 billion) to protect this summer's Games.
Black September is the grim reminder that is has to be worth it. And those in charge have to get it absolutely right.
Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.