By Barry Newcombe
The Olympic Games create a brief window of time every fourth year when we allow ourselves to believe that peace and good will prevail in the world, that competition can coexist with harmony. That belief became illusion on September 5, 1972, in Munich when Israeli Olympians were taken hostage by the Black September terrorist organization.
Barry Newcombe recalls the day and his role in it as a young reporter for a British newspaper.
It was the second Tuesday of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Because there were no track and field events that day, in prospect there would be less work. But the phone next to my bed rang just after 6 a.m. The caller said, “There’s something happening in the Olympic Village; you should get down there.”
I moved fast, down the stairs of the press accommodation, out into the morning air. All around me people were scurrying towards the village, pushed along on a tidal wave of rumor. By the time I reversed that journey 24 hours later, the Olympic world had been stood on its head. So had mine. I was a sportswriter involved in covering the biggest news story of my career.
In timing, the story of that day dropped exactly into the production schedule of my newspaper, the London Evening Standard. Munich was an hour ahead of London; my first edition would soon be rolling. Another four editions would be printed by the end of the afternoon. There were two of us to do the job: my senior colleague, a track and field writer, and myself. Another of our team was in hospital, requiring heart surgery.
A cameraman is shoved from the Olympic Village after trying to film the building where terrorists held Israelis hostage.
Compared to today, communications were limited. To communicate with my office, I had to find a telephone that would offer an international connection, and so did other journalists massing from all over the world. The demand for phones was extreme and was a key part of the hassle surrounding the extraordinary task. There were no call boxes on the position outside the Olympic Village in which, at an address called 31 Connolly Strasse, Arab terrorists were holding 11 Israeli athletes as hostages.
Rumor chased accurate information through the day. On Fleet Street, we call it “the mass doorstep” when a crowd of reporters will wait and wait for hours in hope of a tidbit of news on a developing story. The facts came to us slowly that day. By the time my production cycle finished, everyone was in their original positions — terrorists, hostages, media. They said one reporter had put on a track suit and run into the Olympic Village, saying he was a marathon runner in training. Another was said to have crawled under the surround fence.
As the light faded, it became clear the authorities were going to move the lead players from Connolly Strasse to an airport. The word was that the terrorists had demanded the release of 234 Arabs held in Israeli jails, together with their own safe passage from Germany. A bus and two helicopters took terrorists and hostages on their way.
Our two-man team had to cover the two airports where the departure from Germany could take place. My colleague Wally, who had served in the tanks corps in the Second World War, spun a coin that decided it. He went to Furstenfeldbruck, west of Munich, myself to Riem to the north.
The air base at Furstenfeldbruck was the place to be. My colleague took up position on the perimeter. Suddenly, shooting broke out in the darkness. “Get down, right down, and stay down until I say we get up,” said Wally to a young writer alongside him. The firefight in and around the two helicopters was said to be decisive, and few knew with any accuracy what had happened. Again, rumor preceded the facts.
The media withdrew to the main press centre. The first news was joyous — all safe, said the authorities. That statement was reported as fact on the front pages of all the newspapers in Britain and many other places. The long day and night was over, satisfactorily, we thought.
But it was not over; it was far from over. Another press conference was called within the hour. This time the story was drastically different — nobody had been saved. All dead, they said. The dawn came in bleakly a few minutes later.
I found a desk, wrote the story, and when my office opened for the new day dictated more than 1,000 words on what had been the longest operation I had known. Like many other sportswriters, I had had to front up to the demands. It was an indication that the lessons I had learned when I was a trainee would hold good under pressure.
The Munich Games restarted and were extended for a day. Those who were there will never forget them. The implications for security have been obvious ever since, and the Olympic spirit will have to coexist with that security. There is no escape from it. One thing is certain about Munich 1972. What happened there has shaped the planning for every Olympic Games since and will continue to do so.