It took less than a day—little more than 20
hours, in fact—and, by the time this act of horrific violence was over,
any ideals about the sanctity of global athletic competition were
shattered. Since the Munich Olympics in 1972, there has been violence
at the Games; most significantly, the bomb that exploded in Atlanta’s
Centennial Olympic Park in 1996. But the events of Munich remain
shockingly grave, unsettling images of pure terror. The Centennial Park
bomb was placed in a public setting. It was, as they say in homeland
security circles, a “soft target.” In Munich, as opposed to today, the
Olympic Village itself was a soft target. Real people with real
lives—lives that would end that day—rested, virtually unguarded,
Flashback to Sept. 5, 1972: The five Arab
guys look like they could be jocks. They lug around gym bags. They wear
sweatsuits. They could be any one of any number of rowers, swimmers or
gymnasts in the Olympic Village. But they aren’t. They’re packing guns
in those gym bags. They quietly vault a six-foot-high fence at 4:30
a.m. and proceed to carry about Phase One of their operation.
Just before 5 a.m.: Israeli wrestling coach
Moshe Weinberg gets a knock on his door. He knows that this is trouble.
He screams for his fellow Israelis to escape, and some manage to do so,
but Weinberg and weightlifter Joseph Romano are killed in a hail of
bullets. Within an hour, the terrorists have secured nine Israeli
hostages and later that morning call for the release of 200 Arab
prisoners in Israel.
Then, the waiting. The hours seem like an
eternity. ABC Sports anchor Jim McKay emerges as the face and voice of
the drama before an anxious worldwide audience. A picture of a
terrorist standing on the balcony at the kidnapping site, 31
Connollystrasse, freezeframes a chilling portrait, a forbidding image
of what is still to come.
10 p.m.: The terrorists agree to take the
hostages to a NATO base west of Munich. The hostages are bound and
blindfolded. Three helicopters take them to the air base. Then, an
ill-conceived plan falls apart and goes down so very badly. German
sharpshooters fail in a rescue attempt. The terrorists toss hand
grenades into the helicopters. Blood is everywhere.
Finally, at 3 a.m.: McKay delivers the news.
“They’re all gone,” he announces. All nine athletes are dead. One
German policeman is killed. Five of the terrorists die in the shootout,
and the other three are captured.
Like a child’s innocence, never to return, a
sense is forever lost that—no matter what conflicts emerge on planet
earth—once every four years, we can play games and nobody dies.
• • •
As a writer for the Atlanta Constitution
I covered the Olympic sports of rowing and flatwater kayaking at Lake
Lanier, as well as the Olympic torch relay from Nashville to Miami,
during the Atlanta games of 1996. I had full access to the athletes’
camp in Augusta, Ga. I went out on a single scull owned by rower James
Martinez, an engaging young man who “coached” me from his backyard
pier. (I still ended up flipping his scull.) I carried the actual
Olympic flame, kept in a gold-plated lantern, in my hands. I had full
access to the lakeside venue.
But getting access to the actual village was
another matter entirely. No longer was this sprawling area open turf
for journalists. Biometric security measures, then a concept that
sounded like something out of a science fiction flick, were put in
place to ensure security and restrict access to athletes, wherever they
ate, mingled and kicked back.
Want to get into the Athlete Village these
days at an Olympics? Fat chance. Unless you have an arm for the
shotput, a great jumpshot, or world-class speed—or some other
legitimate reason to be there—you’re not getting in. If anything, the
1972 Munich Games paved the way for the current image of the village as
a fortified haven for athletes.
In Munich, there were no such restrictions.
You could go in and out of the village pretty much at will. The German
security guards didn’t carry weapons. So what exactly was stopping the
terrorists? What’s a 6-foot, 6-inch fence to a group of men who are
willing to kill—and die—for what they believed?
“Munich changed everything,” says Larry
Buendorf, chief security officer for the United States Olympic
Committee, an 11-year veteran with the committee and, previously, a
21-year veteran with the US Secret Service. “As each security incident
occurs in this world, it changes how you go about your regular,
day-to-day business. You use these security incidents as a learning
tool. Did we learn something from Munich? Yes, we certainly did. The
village security fence being used today is considerably better than
that which was used at previous Games. Requirements for admittance to
the Village have improved. At the Olympic Training Centers, we not only
use biometrics—hand recognition—to restrict access to dining areas and
other facilities, but we also utilize cameras and other electronic
security devices to create a secure environment.”
Applying the lessons
The upgrade in security tools and practices
began in the very first Olympics held after 1972, in Montreal,Canada in
1976. Accessibility was highly scrutinized, especially for the
“Dozens of officers from the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police were assigned to protect the Israeli athletes,” says Hal
Marcovitz, co-author of 2002’s The Munich Olympics (Great Disasters:
Reforms and Ramifications). “In fact, the Israelis’ apartments in the
Olympic Village were under 24-hour guard during the two weeks of the
Games. Still, how can you plan for every eventuality? Look at the 1996
Games in Atlanta. Security may have been tight in the Olympic Village,
but a terrorist still managed to set off a bomb in a public park.”
True. But the best-planned efforts can close
off many entry points for terrorists. The Olympics is a collaborative
event, each one conducted after literally more than a decade of intense
coordination among local/state/federal government agencies and public
safety officers, as well as international agencies, and, of course, the
national Olympic committees and the umbrella organization—the
International Olympic Committee.
For the most part in Munich, though, as in
all the modern Games previously, the host country alone was responsible
for all of the security. That is no longer the case.
“The Greek government’s security tab has
already reached a billion dollars,” says John Lucas, an Olympic
historian and professor emeritus of exercise and sports science at Penn
State. Lucas is a paid guest at the Olympic Games every four years.
“The Greeks realize that their police department alone would not be
sufficient to deter terrorists, so it has secured help from the FBI,
the CIA, Scotland Yard, and Israel’s Mossad. France and Germany no
doubt will take some role in security because those two countries alone
are sending 900 athletes and 600 coaches, trainers and sports
scientists to Athens. The whole world is involved in keeping death away
Individual public-safety agencies have also
risen to the challenge since 1972. In Munich, the original German
guards had helmets but didn’t even have uniforms. Germany as a nation
insisted upon going after the terrorists alone; they rebuffed attempts
by the Israeli authorities to get involved.
“There was no command and control
established, and no clear German governmental agency had
responsibility,” says retired Army Col. David Hunt, a senior military
analyst with Fox News Channel and a security consultant for several of
the Olympic Games. “Their snipers probably contributed to the disaster.
The training was so inadequate that, when a German sniper was told to
take a shot, he refused. Now, however, that same organization, called
the GSG9, is among the finest counterterrorism organizations in the
world. [In 1972] the world intelligence community was not talking to
each other and is only starting to now. I’ve been an advisor to six
Olympics—most recently the 2002 Winter Olympic Games at Salt Lake
City—and I can attest to the improvements in intelligence sharing and
the use of the host country’s military.”
The 1984 Games in Los Angeles were a textbook
case demonstrating the improvement, Hunt says, as the US military took
part in a myriad of support roles, including communications, medical
aid and logistics.
Before Munich, the Olympic community somehow
reasoned that it was above politics, above global conflict. Germany
itself was in an image-changing mode, after it displayed such defiant,
hyper-nationalism during Hitler’s Games of 1936, says Timothy Sisk, an
associate professor in the graduate school of international studies at
the University of Denver. As a result, the country tilted the pendulum
in the complete opposite direction, and a lax approach to security was
“The principal challenge today is for
balance,” Sisk says. “Balance is needed between airtight security and
the values of openness, tolerance and broad participation that are the
heart of the ethos of the Olympic spirit. The athletes will be ready.
The police and troops will be ready. But also ready will be terrorists,
anarchists, nationalists, anti-globalizers, and other mischief-makers.”
The bottom line is that it often takes a
shocking act of terror to bring about lasting change. Just look at the
Textbook Example A when it comes to significant acts of terrorism:
Before the attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, it was
difficult to convince American citizens and lawmakers that great steps
were needed to better secure airline safety. Now, it’s a commonly
accepted as a way of life.
“The main lesson learned from the Munich
Olympics is that nobody and no event is off limits to terrorism,”
Marcovitz says. “Of course, we know that now and we should have
realized it then. But following Sept. 11, Israeli security experts told
American authorities that if they had been taking the same precautions
at airports that Israelis have been taking for decades, the attacks
could have been averted.” HST
Dennis McCafferty is a writer based near Washington, DC.
Lessons learned in Munich
No country is an island: Especially
for events such as the Olympics. The Germans thought they could handle
all security alone, and the worst-case event happened as a result. When
kicking into crisis mode, the German police thought they could handle
the terrorists on their own. They did, but at the expense of too many
young lives. Today’s Olympics involve the FBI, CIA, Scotland Yard and
other worldwide agencies.
Today’s tools work: Face it. The
available tools to thwart terrorism in 1972 were far cruder than what
we have now, three decades later. Biometrics, information-sharing
communications systems, more formidable physical barriers … all of
this adds to the equation when it comes to securing the Games.
Don’t sacrifice safety for image:
Being that the world still had fresh memories of Hitler’s spectacle
during the Games of 1936, Germany bent over backwards to change that
image for 1972. Part of the image makeover was a lax approach to
security. The terrorists took advantage. The rest is a tragic page of
Tap into the military: They’re
trained and skilled in security, not to mention logistical support.
Even when it comes to serving food to a mass crowd. Why not make full
use of what they have to offer?