By ROBERT H. REID, Associated Press
It began as a glorious late summer's day — clear blue sky, shorts and shirt-sleeve kind of weather. Sunlight twinkled off the acrylic glass at the Olympic stadium. Tourists lounged beneath the umbrellas of outdoor cafes, chatting and sipping beer.
The scene in Munich's Olympic Park on Sept. 5, 1972, was idyllic — except for a helicopter from the German border police circling over buildings of the nearby village where the athletes lived.
If you shaded your eyes, squinted against the blinding sunlight and knew where to look, you could just make out the images of armed uniformed German police standing on the buildings. Turn away and the horror of what was unfolding seemed to disappear.
Forty years later, the stark images of what became known as the Munich Massacre remain seared in my memory.
Eight Palestinian gunmen from the Black September organization had broken into the Olympic Village. There they seized 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and officials in their apartments.
Two of the hostages were slain in the first moments. By the end of the day, the nine other Israeli hostages and all but three of the gunmen would be dead. The stain of that terrible day would remain for decades — on the city of Munich, on German officials and on the Olympic movement's leadership, which tried to downplay the tragedy.
My wife and I were there, among the tens of thousands of people who had come to Munich that day to take part in what the Germans had advertised as the "friendly Olympics."
We'd heard about the hostage-taking on Armed Forces Radio before leaving our home in Augsburg, a city just northwest of Munich where I was stationed in the U.S. Army. We decided to go anyway. We'd won discount tickets for a football match in a lottery for American soldiers and had planned to attend with two other couples.
There had been no announcement that events would be canceled. As a lieutenant I was earning less than $500 a month, and we didn't want to waste the price of the ticket, even at discount rates.
Once we got there, the decision seemed a wise one. Despite the tension around the building where the hostages were being held, everywhere else things seemed pretty normal. At the Olympic Park, there were no security checkpoints, no looks of fear or apprehension among the crowd and no sense of alarm — except around the athletes' quarters. And those were off limits to spectators anyway.
A few policemen ambled among the crowds. But there were no signs of the extra security that today, in the post-9/11 world, is standard and expected.
In an era before the Internet, before smartphones and before 24-hour news cycles, there was little tension in the air. No one was huddling over a radio trying to follow events. The only sign of trouble, apart from that helicopter and armed police on the rooftop, was a bold-faced headline on a German tabloid that screamed: "Geiselnahme," or "Hostage Taking."
But for people who didn't know German, it was hard to find a clue that anything was wrong. And that's the way the president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, wanted it.
The 84-year-old philanthropist and art collector resisted calls to suspend the games and hoped the German authorities could resolve the crisis quickly and without more bloodshed. As hours passed with no resolution, the party outside the Olympic Village rolled on.
Coming less than 30 years after World War II ended, the choice of Munich as a venue had been controversial from the outset. More than most German cities, Munich had been closely associated with the rise of the Nazi Party. The first concentration camp, Dachau, was located on Munich's outskirts, and the Israeli team had visited the site just before the opening ceremony.
It was the first time Germany had hosted the Summer Games since 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which were presided over by a confident and increasingly menacing Adolf Hitler. Hoping for redemption, the Germans had promoted a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Now, the image of Jewish athletes with their lives at risk threatened to destroy all that.
As the sun began to set, the crowd shuffled into the Olympic stadium to watch the football match: West Germany vs. Hungary. Everything seemed on track as the 80,000-seat venue began to fill. As we awaited the start of the match, an announcement echoed over the loudspeakers. With groans of complaint, people began getting up and leaving.