/ 1 January 2002

Sep 5, 1972 – the day sport lost its innocence

The Israeli athletes were enjoying a rare night out. With a break in the competition at the Munich Olympics, they saw a performance of ”Fiddler on the Roof” before heading back to their rooms at the Olympic Village.

Settling into bed in the early hours of September 5, 1972, they went to sleep unaware that eight members of a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September were making their way toward the athletes’ housing complex.

Dressed in track suits, their athletic bags filled with Kalashnikovs and hand grenades, the terrorists mingled among tipsy American athletes coming in for the night.

They hopped the six-foot fence surrounding the village.

Shortly after 4am, wrestling referee Yossef Gutfreund heard a noise at the door and went to investigate. Opening it, he saw the barrels of submachine guns.

”Take cover, boys!” he shouted before trying to close the door. Startled out of their sleep, a few managed to get out a back door; others left through a window. The attackers burst into a bedroom where wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg lunged at one with a knife and was shot in the face. In another room, weightlifter Yossef Romano grabbed a gun from a terrorist and was shot to death by another.

Nine athletes were captured and tied hand and foot to furniture in a bloody third-floor bedroom.

Soon the world – thanks to new satellite technology that beamed the games to a billion people – would be watching in horror as a drama far more captivating than any Olympic event.

By the time it ended 21 hours later in an ill-conceived rescue attempt, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, five terrorists and one West German police officer were dead.

The games would go on, but they’d never be the same again. ”Sports lost its innocence that day in Munich,” said ABC television announcer Jim McKay, who anchored the coverage.

Israeli commandos would later hunt down and kill most of those involved in planning and carrying out the attack.

And, in the wake of September 11, Munich is no longer the most shocking and outrageous terror attack the world has seen.

Thirty years later, there’s a small monument outside the Olympic stadium honouring those who died. But time hasn’t healed everything, especially for the relatives of the victims.

”So many fatal mistakes, such negligence and such stupidity,” said Ankie Spitzer, widow of fencer Andrei Spitzer. ”They should have protected my husband and the other athletes and they didn’t.”

By current standards, security in Munich was almost laughable. A single chain-link fence protected the village, and athletes looking for a shortcut home often scaled it after a night out.

There was no barbed wire, no cameras, no motion detectors, no barricades.

In Athens in 2004, some $600-million will be spent on security. In Munich, about $2-million was allocated to protect the athletes.

Ankie Spitzer wasn’t supposed to be in the village, but she’d roam freely with her husband in the opening days of the games. The village was crammed with people who talked their way past the guards, walked through unguarded exits, or hopped the fence to get in.

The village was less than 20 miles from the site of the Dachau death camp and Germany was determined not to give the games a militaristic look. Hitler’s games of 1936 were still a vivid memory.

These Olympics were called ”The Games of Peace and Joy.” That changed September 5. From then on, Munich would forever be remembered for shadowy figures in ski masks, smouldering helicopters and flag-draped coffins returning to Israel.

The terrorists demanded that more than 200 Palestinians be released from Israeli jails. They tossed Weinberg’s bloodied body into the street to show they meant business.

As a 5pm deadline to kill the hostages passed, with

International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage pressing German authorities to move the siege out of the Olympic Village, negotiators drew up a plan to fly the terrorists and their hostages to a nearby air base.

At one point, Spitzer was brought by the terrorists to a window where they ordered him to say in German that the hostages were alive. As he got the words out, a terrorist smashed him in the head with the butt of a rifle and dragged him off.

At the military airport at Furstenfeldbruck, a Boeing 707 was ready to take the terrorists and their hostages to Cairo. Inside the plane were police dressed as crew members who were to attack the gunmen and free the victims.

Minutes before the helicopters arrived, the police on the plane decided they wanted no part of a suicide mission.

They took a vote, and decided to get out.

”We were trained for everyday offences, to be close to the people, unarmed – but not for an action against paramilitary trained terrorists,” former Munich police chief Manfred Schreiber said in a 1996 interview.

Police switched to a new plan. Sharpshooters were supposed to open fire as the terrorists approached the plane, killing the leaders and hoping the rest would surrender.

The Germans, though, thought there were only five terrorists, not eight. Police had only five sharpshooters, whose rifles didn’t have scopes or night-vision devices and who couldn’t communicate with each other.

The terrorists knew they had been duped when they boarded the empty plane. They ran back toward the helicopters and gunfire broke out.

The helicopter pilots fled, but the hostages, bound hand and foot inside, couldn’t. The terrorists threw grenades in the helicopters and sprayed them with gunfire.

Armoured cars that would have let police storm the helicopters were stuck in traffic.

When the smoke cleared, everyone was dead except for three wounded terrorists. They would be jailed, but were released two months later in trade for a hijacking.

In the confusion, reporters were told all the hostages were alive. Spitzer’s father wanted to open a bottle of champagne to celebrate, but his wife refused until she saw her husband alive.

A few hours later, McKay delivered the sad news to the world: ”Tonight our worst fears have been realised.”

The next day, Spitzer sat in the Olympic stadium with the 11 Israeli Olympians who escaped capture. They wore white yarmulkes and maroon blazers and silently watched a hastily arranged memorial service for the dead athletes.

Brundage never once referred to the athletes during a speech in which he praised the strength of the Olympic movement.

The Olympics paused only a day before resuming.

It wasn’t the last slap in the face to the survivors and relatives. They’ve pushed for but never gotten the moment of silence at succeeding Olympics they wanted.

Israeli secret operations forces hunted down and killed the Palestinians whom they held responsible.

Former Palestine Liberation Organisation guerrilla Mohammed Oudeh wrote in a book in 1999 that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was briefed on the plans for Munich, but said the intent was never to kill the Israeli athletes. Israeli and American intelligence experts have long implicated Oudeh and the PLO in planning the hostage-taking.

At a memorial service last month, 25 relatives of the victims returned to the Munich stadium for a ceremony at the monument to the victims – a large stone tablet placed at the bridge linking the former Olympic village to the stadium.

There, the victims’ names are etched in the stone in German and Hebrew, with the solemn words: ”In honour of their memory.”

An Israeli flag was draped across the tablet, with 11 candles burning and fresh wreaths laid at the foot of the monument. Six Israeli flags fluttered in the wind. – Sapa-AP