In Munich 24 years ago, Frank Shorter was the only one in our
fifth-floor apartment in the Athletes' Village who heard the
shots. They brought him from fitful sleep to apprehensive
alertness. A few minutes later there was a pounding on the door
of the coaches' room on the ground floor. U.S. track coach Bill
Bowerman groggily answered it.
Before him stood Shaul Ladany, an Israeli race walker. "Can I
come in?" Ladany asked, oddly, distractedly.
"What for?" growled Bowerman.
"The Arabs are in our building," said Ladany.
"Well," said Bowerman, "push them out."
"They have guns," said Ladany, who had escaped through a window
when other Israelis had shouted an alarm. "Two people are dead."
Thus, as Bowerman reached to draw Ladany into the safety of his
room, the coach became the first of us to know that everything
had changed, that we were to be actors in the modern Olympics'
great loss of innocence. At dawn we learned that after storming
the building the terrorists had killed two and taken nine
coaches and athletes hostage. From the balcony of our apartment,
which Shorter and I shared with fellow U.S. runners Jon
Anderson, Mike Manley, Steve Savage and Dave Wottle, we could
see tanks, troops and emergency vehicles assembling 150 yards
away, behind the blocky building that housed the Israelis, among
others. We took turns on our terrace all day, nervously plucking
seeds from a fennel plant that grew there and grinding them into
our palms, keeping vigil.
Shorter agonized quietly. "Imagine how it must be for them in
there," he said as the singsong European police sirens sounded.
"Some maniac with a machine gun saying, 'Let's kill 'em now,'
and another one saying, 'No, let's wait awhile.' How long could
you stand that?"
In mid-afternoon, after competition had continued as scheduled,
word came: The Games had been stopped. The IOC would not say
when, or even whether, they would resume. In that uncertainty,
we experienced level after level of grief. I remember weeping
for my own event, the marathon, for years of preparation that
seemed wasted, and for the violated sanctuary of the Games. It
truly did not hit me until then, in my 29th year, that the
Olympics were not somehow immune to every threat to which the
larger world was subject.
I was not alone. Steve Prefontaine, the 5,000-meter runner,
raged at the terrorists' blindness, at what, to him, was their
sheer, malignant nerve. "These are our Games," he cried. "Anyone
who would murder us for some demented cause just proves himself
incapable of understanding what we do."
The terrorists were demanding a helicopter to carry them and
their hostages to a plane that would take them out of the
country. Negotiations went on into darkness. At 10, I tried to
escape the Village and discovered shouting crowds of athletes
and officials being turned back from the gates. We were sealed in.
Through rising furor, I went back to the apartment. From the
balcony we watched a flight of helicopters suddenly drop down
and land near where the standoff was. The cacophony of their
engines echoing off the concrete buildings was such that we,
spooked, thought it was machine-gun fire.
Within the hour the helicopters lifted off again, on their way
to Furstenfeldbruck Air Base, where a plane was waiting, and
much else. They disappeared into a cloudy sky that I remember as
roiled and reddened by searchlights. Shorter watched the sky
long after the rest of us had finished our prayers for the
Israelis' safe passage. "You know, Kenny," he said with shaken
softness, "I don't think it's over."
In the morning we learned the final horror. The Germans had
misjudged the number of terrorists. There had been too few
police marksmen waiting at Furstenfeldbruck. When they opened
fire, one unhurt terrorist set off a grenade.
I awakened to see Anderson holding a German newspaper with
photos of a burned-out helicopter. Prefontaine translated the
headline for me: SIXTEEN DEAD. That was when he said, "They
could load us all on a plane right now to take us home, and I'd
go." He heard no dissent.
There was a memorial service for our fellow Olympians in the
main stadium, where IOC president Avery Brundage announced that
the Games would go on, after a 24-hour postponement. Our
response to that, individually and severally, defines us still.
Shorter and I were in the marathon. We knew it was impossible to
protect us on the route. We knew also that the British team had
received death threats from the IRA, a case of a second set of
terrorists piggybacking on the first. Yet there was never any
question that we would run. "We have to not let this detract
from our performance," said Shorter, "because that's what they
I can't speak for Frank, but I know I ran the 1972 Olympic
marathon expressly measuring my own suffering against that of my
fellow Olympians. Every time I would get a stitch in my side, or
a cramp running up a hamstring, I would ask myself if this
passing ache were comparable to what they felt in that
phosphorous conflagration. That settled, I would run on,
Shorter won. I was fourth. We ran well, and in that we were
emblematic of the essential lesson of all athletics: Everyone
suffers. It's what you do with your suffering that lifts and
advances us, as swimmers, softball players and gymnasts. As a
When former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young was asked to respond to
the Centennial Park bombing, he pointed out that the rest of the
world has been enduring such events for years, and then quoted
Martin Luther King Jr., who said, "Violence is the language of
the unheard." Yes, but it's a language of obscenity. The
terrorists of 1972 were fanatics, prepared, perhaps even
content, to die for their cause. They were in some ways the
mirror image of Olympians, except from their suffering they
brought forth death. They had surrendered to the eternal cycle
of violence in which the sins of the fathers are visited upon
their sons. They were every victim become destroyer.
We were fortunate enough to know better. We were successors to
the great moral advance made by the Greeks in 776 B.C. when they
came to understand that there is more honor in outrunning a man
than in killing him, when they so sanctified the Games that they
would lay down their arms during the sacred truce of Olympia and
grant participants free passage through warring states. Our
answer to the attack in 1972 was 2,748 years old: performance,
When he heard the news of the Atlanta bombing, Shorter called
me. "On that balcony in Munich," he said, "it was like, Someone
is doing this to them over there. But in Atlanta, now, it is a
different kind of fear. The bomb was set in the public
precincts. The feeling is that we're all the target now."
Yet the IOC, ACOG and the White House never seriously considered
stopping the Atlanta Games. "It was a slow process in Munich,"
said Shorter. "The day we watched as the hostages were held and
the day off for the memorial service, we went through the stages
humans must go through in times of brutal stress: from denial to
anger, to grief, to resolve. It's like Atlanta learned from
that. This time officials went straight to affirming that the
Games will go on."
As did the athletes. "It's difficult to focus on goals when
someone is trying to destroy the Olympic spirit," said Gail
Devers, after winning the women's 100 in an almost defiant
fashion. "That's what they're trying to do, and I'm not going to
I could hear echoes of '72 in the reaction of U.S. judoka Jimmy
Pedro, a bronze medalist in the 157-pound division: "I worked 19
years to be here. The athletes won't leave, we won't stop. Of
course we'll go on."
The striking thing was his tone, so offhand, so expectant that
everyone in the world will understand that his--ours--is a
perfectly obvious course, to turn pain into performance. But of
course they don't all understand, or we wouldn't have our latest
dead, or children torn and broken by explosives detonated,
incomprehensibly, to make some point. What Shorter said on that
Munich balcony was and remains true. It's not over, not until
all the cycles of violence are broken and man is perfected,
which isn't going to be any Olympiad soon.
So the Olympian thing to do is simply to spread the word that
barbarism only makes Olympians stronger. "We've got to talk
about the risks," says Shorter. "Know the percentages, so people
can't deny the risks, but then we have to go forward, because to
surrender here is to surrender all. We have to say to ourselves,
as a society, what we said before that marathon back in Munich.
We have to say, 'This is as scared as I get. Now let's go run.'"
COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER Marathoners Shorter (left) and Moore ran defiantly, and well. [Frank Shorter and Kenny Moore]