Alan Hubbard

The recent evocative pieces on the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Olympic Games by my insidethegames colleague Philip Barker brought personal memories flooding back. Not that they were ever far from consciousness.

I am one of the very few remaining journalists to have covered surely the most tragic event in the annals of sport.

Munich was my third Olympics after Tokyo 1964 and Mexico City 1968. I arrived in the pleasant Bavarian city full of hope for a Games that would be staged with typical German efficiency and world-class competition.

Which was the case until the dreadful day dawned on Tuesday September 5 when the most evil act of terrorism changed not only the Olympics but this sporting life forever. It also spawned the two words which indelibly scarred the face of global sport so badly that they remain indelibly locked in the mind half a century later. Black September.

It was just after 4am when eight hooded members of the Palestinian terrorist organisation of that name jumped over the fence of eight feet 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.

The world was watching as the grim drama played out in the Olympic Village ©Getty Images
The world was watching as the grim drama played out in the Olympic Village ©Getty Images

I had been woken by a colleague knocking on the door of 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 steel fence around the Village, as close to the scene as the ring of police and militia would allow and the longest, most awful day I have experienced in some 65 years as a journalist began to unfold.

Immediately we sports hacks had to turn our hands to hard news reporting from what was already resembling a war zone. There were some memorable dispatches, not least from BBC commentator David Coleman and John Rodda of The Guardian who borrowed a Team GB track suit and jogged into the besieged Olympic Village, posing as an athlete.

Twenty-four hours of tension and high drama encompassed disbelief that such a terrible thing could be happening. There was 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 masked terrorists framed in the windows, flourishing machine guns.

One of them dropped a list of their demands out of a window; they wanted 234 people released from Israeli prisons and two from German ones 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. 

Black September terrorists knew where the Israeli team was staying because signage in the Olympic Village advertised who was where ©Getty Images
Black September terrorists knew where the Israeli team was staying because signage in the Olympic Village advertised who was where ©Getty Images

The German negotiators intimated that they had agreed but the local 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 Furstenfeldbruck. 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.

But the terrorists fired back. Two of them and one policeman were killed. Then a terrorist tossed a grenade into a helicopter in which several of the hostages were bound and blindfolded. Other Israelis were killed when another terrorist jumped into the second helicopter and raked them with machine-gun fire.

Five of the Palestinians died in the gun battle which followed and three were captured and taken into custody. All nine of the remaining Israeli hostages had perished.

While all this was happening several journalists had rushed to the airfield, watching from behind a perimeter fence. One young white-faced reporter, on his first big assignment, nervously tugged the sleeve of the London Evening Standard's seasoned boxing correspondent, Walter Bartleman, who had commanded a tank regiment during the Second World War. "What do we do now?" he asked.
"Any advice?" 

"Yes," replied Bartleman tersely. "Keep yer bleedin' head down, son!"

Bart, as he was known, was one of Fleet Street's great characters. Every morning as we passed through the gates of the Media Village he would startle the youthful German soldiers on guard duty by mischievously bellowing: "Achtung, Achtung- Spitfires!"

Two wreaths were placed beneath the control tower at the Fürstenfeldbruck air base this month to mark the 50th anniversary of the tragedy ©ITG
Two wreaths were placed beneath the control tower at the Fürstenfeldbruck air base this month to mark the 50th anniversary of the tragedy ©ITG

The tragedy was compounded by an unbelievable, unforgivable error. Back at the media centre the world's press, TV and radio were being erroneously informed in the early hours of Wednesday that all the hostages were safe.

The news flashed around the globe, 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, though one assumes it surely was not a deliberate deception but an inexplicable breakdown in communication by the usually ultra-efficient Germans.

Later that day the remaining Israeli contingent and Jewish athletes from other nations were evacuated from the Games Village for their own security. Some even returned home. The choice of Munich nearly 30 years after the Second World War had always been controversial, especially as the Bavaria had been so closely associated with the rise of the Nazi Party.

The first concentration camp, in Dachau, was located on Munich's outskirts and the Israeli team had visited the site just before the opening. One journalist had ominously 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 American swimmer Mark Spitz - himself Jewish - winning a record seven gold medals; the delightful teenager Olga Korbut, 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 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."

Teenagers recited the names of those who died in the terrorist attack at one commemorative event last week ©ITG
Teenagers recited the names of those who died in the terrorist attack at one commemorative event last week ©ITG

It did seem that the then President of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, was similarly dismissive 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 went on, 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 (the subject of the 2005 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. Incredibly, he managed to survive, and died nearly 30 years later of kidney disease in Syria.

Now, five decades on, massive, often oppressive security has become as integral a part of all nine subsequent Games as the 100 metres, 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 ($1.15 billion/€1.15 billion) to protect the Games. Paris, whose citizens are no strangers to terrorism, expects to spend double that figure.

Black September is the grim reminder that it has to be worth it.

Eleven Israelis and one policeman were killed in the attack ©Getty Images
Eleven Israelis and one policeman were killed in the attack ©Getty Images

Munich 1972 was not the first Olympics to be touched by death, disaster or demonstrations, nor the last. A dozen Games have passed since then and almost all have experience happenings beyond the simple remit of sporting conflict. Black September was even preceded four years earlier by Black Power, when American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the rostrum in Mexico City with heads bowed and raised fists clad in black gloves in a silent protest against racial discrimination in their homeland. 

But far worse had occurred 10 days before these Games began when at least 300 demonstrators, mainly young students, were massacred in Mexico City's infamous Plaza de las Tres Culturas, machine-gunned by Government troops in helicopters. 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 - all disguised as Boy Scouts.

After political boycotts had marred Moscow and Los Angeles, Seoul saw violent student riots leading up to the Games in 1988. Troops dispersed the rioters with tear gas, with hundreds hospitalised.

In 1996, a bomb exploded in Atlanta's Centennial Park, 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.

Before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing there were worldwide demonstrations by human-rights activists over Chinese oppression in Tibet, where two monks set themselves alight.

Tokyo 2020 was forced to become Tokyo 2021, not by terrorism, but something equally abhorrent and devastating: COVID-19.

A final thought. Was it mere coincidence that Islamic terrorists from Al Qaeda chose the month of September to inflict the worst atrocity since the Second World War, the horror of 9/11 in the United States? The 21st anniversary of 9/11 runs simultaneously with the 50th anniversary of the Munich Massacre this month.

Black September indeed.