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Spectre of Munich still haunts Olympians 40 years later

A gunman wears a hood over his face as he surveys the building where Palestinian militants held Israeli athletes hostage at the Munich Olympic Village on Sept. 5, 1972. The 20-hour standoff ended in a botched rescue effort at the airport.

KURT STRUMPF/Associated Press

The images have stayed with Ian Millar for 40 years. The panicky man with a hand gun shouting, "Go back, go back. Danger." The apartment window with the curtains pulled apart, and a gun muzzle sticking out between them.

Worst of all was the sight of nine Israelis, blindfolded and bound together, being led at gunpoint onto a bus destined to take them to their deaths. It was Sept. 5, 1972, the day terrorism took root and the Olympics carried on.

The 2012 Games are Mr. Millar's 10th, an Olympic record, and perhaps his last. At 65, he has ridden many a mile, represented his country whenever asked and won a wealth of medals, including the Olympic silver he helped Canada claim four years ago in team jumping. But his first Olympics were in Munich, and as the debate continues over the International Olympic Committee's decision not to include an anniversary-driven moment of silence at Friday's opening ceremonies, Mr. Millar reflected on his memories while training with his horse north of London.

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What surprised him was how little he knew then and how much the world has changed.

"Now we know they were terrorists. Back then it was a bit of a new concept," said Mr. Millar, who witnessed how the Black September terrorist group tried to barter its Israeli hostages for the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel. "If you were screwing around with security back then, the guards would roll their eyes. It was no big deal. Today, there wouldn't be a guy trying to climb a fence at 3 a.m. He'd know better because he'd be caught, jailed and thrown out of the Olympics – and we'd all hear about it in minutes."

It began at roughly 4:30 a.m. outside the northwest corner of the athletes' village. Two groups of armed terrorists, eight in all, scaled the three-metre-high chain-link fence, burst into Building 31 where 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were staying and immediately killed two of them. It quickly led to a standoff between the terrorists and police, with the hostages all being murdered in a failed rescue attempt.

Ironically, two groups of Canadian athletes had been out late watching the second game of the Canada-Russia summit hockey series in the early hours of Sept. 5. One group included water polo players David Calder and Jack Gauldie, who told the CBC in a recent television documentary they believe they helped the terrorists scale the fence to get into the village. They were not suspicious since everyone looked like an athlete trying to sneak their way home.

Swimmer Byron MacDonald, now the head coach of the University of Toronto swim team, was in the second group of Canadians at the fence unaware of Mr. Calder and the others. What he saw instead were four men climbing over the security fence into the village.

"They were wearing track suits, off-red or mauve. There were no names on the back," Mr. MacDonald said. "We never talked to them. They hopped the fence and we did, too."

Minutes later, Mr. MacDonald heard "bang, bang, bang." He went out on his apartment balcony looking for fireworks. When he didn't see anything, he went to bed. Israeli wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano had been shot dead.

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About 75 minutes later, Mr. Millar was up and on his way to breakfast. He was staying in an apartment one block away from where the Israelis were staying. As he and three teammates walked around a corner, they were warned away by an agitated man, likely a plainclothes police officer, holding a gun. Mr. Millar looked up and saw a muzzle emerging from a balcony window overhead.

"In those days, who knew what a terrorist was?" he said. "We went off to ride our horses. When we came back, we saw the [Israelis] being led out of the building onto a bus. They were all bound and tied to the guy in front of them. We watched them drive away."

Mr. MacDonald saw more once he awoke. From his balcony, he watched armed troops and tanks roll into the village not knowing what was going on. "I kept waiting for someone to yell, 'Cut,' like it was a movie scene," he said. "It's scary now. At the time, there was no reference. You didn't realize the gravity of the situation."

Once everyone knew what was unfolding came reports that the hostages had been freed unharmed. The joy was soon dashed by the grim reality that they had had been killed on the tarmac of a nearby NATO airfield.

"They're all gone," relayed ABC commentator Jim McKay.

The mood in Munich, Mr. Millar said, was, "We're not going to allow the spirit of the Olympics to be compromised or ruined. The Olympics must go on." The Games resumed after a day's postponement and a memorial service.

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"Looking back [to that chance meeting with the terrorists at the fence], the only thing we could have gone was gotten shot," Mr. MacDonald said. "This thing was coming off no matter what."

As for Mr. Millar, he is hoping to travel into London and march in the 2012 opening ceremonies but may not due to time restraints. Either way, the memory of how his first Olympics began, with the Munich massacre, is one that will never fade, even after 40 years.

"The Olympics have been a microcosm of life itself – the highs and lows. It's all about the journey," Mr. Millar said. "Nothing is sure."


Pierre Plouffe had placed fifth in water skiing, a demonstration sport in Munich, and decided to wind up his Olympic experience living in the athletes' village and watch some history unfold, such as Mark Spitz winning his seventh gold medal.

"I was there for his final race," recalled Mr. Plouffe, now 62. "I thought that was the most memorable thing I'd take away from the Games."

One night, he and several other athletes walked outside the village to the CBC tower where they watched a broadcast of Canada taking on the USSR in the second game of the Summit Series. As they strolled back around 3 a.m., they decided to hop the village fence rather than walk around to the main gates. They heard bangs but didn't realize they were gunshots.

When word of the hostage-taking started making the rounds, it was soon followed by suspicion surrounding a group of men who were spotted jumping the fence in the wee hours of the morning. "They were looking for these terrorists who'd hopped the fence, but that was us. We were hockey fans, not terrorists," Mr. Plouffe said.

The Canadian accommodations were located directly across from those of the Israeli athletes. For much of the next day, Mr. Plouffe and the Canadians watched the horrific scene play out live. "We could look right inside the Israeli building and see what was going on. We could see this guy in a white track suit walking on the roof of the buliding. At one point, one of us in the Canadian living room tried to take a picture of the whole scene. One of the Black September guys wheeled around and pointed a rifle or shotgun right at us. They didn't want any pictures. Needless to say, no flash bulb went off."

Later that night, Mr. Plouffe recalls seeing the hostages coming out of the building and loading into a bus. "They knew they were going to die," he said. "They were screaming and crying. We were just a few hundred feet away. They didn't evacuate us for some reason. The only athlete I remember them evacuating was Mark Spitz because he was Jewish."

After the tragedy, the whole country was in mourning. "All the Germans walked with their heads down," Mr. Plouffe said. "They realized they had screwed it up in '36 when Hitler was in power and now this was even worse."


For Karen James, it had been a celebratory night, her swimming at the Games concluded, and a late-night show of hockey. She went to sleep in a women's dorm, farther away from the building where the Israelis were, and didn't hear the gunfire.

Waking the next morning and crossing the village, she was hustled into a building near the hostage taking. She could see the hostage negotiations, and watched the athletes led to the bus. She was just 19, and Jewish. Ms. James attended the memorial service and then left the country, before the Games were done, and buried the memories for decades. She was angry, and the Olympic dream was destroyed. "It died for me."

Years later, she began speaking of her experience, mostly to Jewish groups. In February, 2010, she ran with the Olympic torch in Vancouver, which helped draw her back to the sporting event of her youth.

But the IOC's refusal to hold a minute of silence to honour the murdered athletes tears at Ms. James. "Their intransigence, their refusal, really colours how I feel about the Olympics, even just watching them," she said. "It coloured it for me yet again. The minute of silence would have been part of healing for the many, many people who were there."

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Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. More

National correspondent, Vancouver bureau

David Ebner is a national correspondent based in Vancouver. He joined The Globe and Mail in 2000 and worked in Toronto and Calgary before moving to Vancouver in 2008. He has reported on a wide range of stories – business, politics, arts, crime – and has covered sports since 2012. More

National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More


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