How my privileged place at the Munich Games gave me horrors

August 31, 2012

It has been very easy to get lost in the euphoria of the Olympics this summer but of course this year marks the 40th anniversary - next Wednesday - of the terrible events at Munich, when 11 Israeli sportsmen were murdered by Palestinian terrorists from the group Black September.

I had an unusual view as the scenes unfolded on September 5 1972. I was a university law student and had managed to secure an exciting summer job as part of the ITV Olympics team in London. I believed I would be no more than a glorified messenger but from day one I found myself monitoring the tape machines as they churned out the results. There was no email, no mobile phones or computers - recorded packages were sent down the line from Germany via a link available for half an hour in the morning and then again in the afternoon.

It was with disbelief and shock that I read the reports as the terrible events unfolded. Over the course of the next day, we discovered how gunmen wielding AK-47s had scaled the fence and made their way into the athletes' village to brutally attack and slaughter members of the Israeli delegation, who, only a few hours earlier, had enjoyed a performance of Fiddler on the Roof.

Two men were murdered immediately, nine others died during an unsuccessful rescue attempt that also left a German policeman dead.

I recall being particularly struck by the utter confusion in the stream of reports coming from Munich. Now, the world is sadly accustomed to dealing with terrorist attacks; at the time, we were far less experienced. No one in the newsroom could believe what they were hearing.

Earlier that week, I had been sent scurrying for still photographs when two black athletes turned a medal ceremony into a scene of protest, in a moment of high drama. But suddenly the teleprinters on my watch stopped churning out "flashes" of records from the Olympic complex, and offered instead details of the horror in Block 31 Connollystrasse in the Olympic Village.

The terrorists deliberately struck at the very heart of the Olympic movement. The Games were suspended and there was wild speculation about the fate of the Israeli men. But relief from the initial reports that the athletes had been rescued soon turned to utter despair as it was realised they had all been murdered while they sat helpless in helicopters. Everyone in the team I was working for was equally shaken. The sports world had witnessed moments of greatness and wonder, but never anything like this.

My immediate thought, as I trawled through reports of what had happened, was that the Games should be abandoned. At the time, I could not conceive of how they could carry on.

A hastily arranged memorial service was arranged in the Olympic Stadium. At first the Games were going to be cancelled but the Olympic committee decided otherwise, a decision approved by the Israeli government and team.

The Philippine and Algerian delegations went home, along with a few athletes from other countries. Forty years on, I remain of the view that the Games should have been abandoned. The argument against this is that this would have been seen as a victory for the terrorists. However, as a Dutch competitor commented: "You give a party, and someone is killed at the party, you don't continue the party." The great hallmark of the Olympics - supposedly - is that it is a family where ethnic or national backgrounds are set aside; it is the taking part that is important.

Not long after, I visited Montreal, the venue for the next Olympics. I remember thinking that, had the terrible events at Munich happened in ancient times, the competition would have speedily disappeared. As it was, the black ribbon on the Israeli flag as the team joined the opening ceremony in 1976 was a poignant reminder of the tragedy that had unfolded four years earlier.

The Olympics have survived, though not without their controversies, including the debate on whether to commemorate the atrocities during the Opening Ceremony. As a lawyer I have learnt to be objective and unemotional when watching terrible events and reading chilling reports but I sometimes have flashbacks to Munich.

It was a generation ago and, as the Olympians celebrated their successes this summer, I wondered whether the world really remembers the sacrifice made to the ideals of the movement by those Israeli athletes 40 years ago.

Michael Caplan QC is a senior partner at the International law firm Kingsley Napley LLP

Last updated: 11:45am, August 31 2012