Runner’s World Review – Olympic Tragedy: Munich 1972

I’m an avid Runner’s World reader and have been for many years. Each month  I will pick one article from the magazine (suggestions welcome!) to discuss and we can kick around thoughts, opinions and reflections. We’ll stay one issue behind the most current so that non-subscriber’s can read along on the RW website.  It’ll be like a book club, except less Jane Austen and more sweat.  So grab a cup of Joe or tea (see, it is just like a book club!) and jump into the fray!

September 2012 – Olympic Tragedy: Munich 1972

Since the issues come out a month before their stamped date (does anyone know why magazines do that??), this one was dedicated to the Olympics. Chock full of fun, light fare (did you know Shalane and Ryan are Glee fans while Kara favors the Bachelor?? fascinating!) there was one article that set a decidedly different tone – the account of the fatal attacks on Israelis by Palestinians at the 1972 Munich Olympics. I’m sure you are all familiar with the broad stroke details – on September 5, 1972,  Palestinian terrorists jumped the fence to the Olympic athlete village and spent the next 21 hours in a hostage situation, the end result being the massacre of 11 Israelis and complete shock as the world watched the terrible events (including a failed ambush attempt) take place on the stage of what is normally a peaceful time for nations.

The article is written from the standpoint of Kenny Moore, the American who placed 4th that year. He writes it by juxtaposing his memories of the events of 1972 with his first trip back to Munich in 2009. It’s a fascinating and horrifying article that I highly recommend. Unless, of course, you are in the sort of mood that is feeling high on humanity (this’ll smash it to bits) or if you are feeling particularly emotional because maybe you just watched The Time Traveler’s Wife again and are already primed for a serious crying jag over senseless deaths. Ahem.

There are endless threads of the storyline we can follow here (and I encourage you to read it for yourselves and share your thoughts back in the comments section) including the further tragedy that struck the bronze medalist Wolde after the Games, the detailed race report of the marathon, the mismanagement of the ambush attack by the German government, how freaking unfair it is that 11 people lost their lives for no reason (is there ever one?) or the “man, how mind boggling frustrating?!?!” aspect of the Germans hosting the Games as a (very) small step to help repair the damage done to their nation’s reputation by the Holocaust only to have 11 Jewish people murdered in cold blood (or how this attention to appearances may have shaped the failed ambush and the continuation of the Games).

But what I really want to talk about today is the part after the gunfire and grenades and the body count and the arrests. I want to talk about the part just as the dust settles, as it makes its first faltering contact with the ground. The part where the IOC had to decide what to do next – should they cancel the Games, postpone them or carry-on as usual? We come up against this question on a fairly regular basis – in the face of tragedy, what is the right choice?

In our post 9/11 landscape, how many times have we all heard “we can’t let the terrorists win!” as a reason to go on? Or, in the case of a personal loss, “so-and-so would have wanted us to continue”? And heard of tales where people are able to channel their shock, anger and grief into palpable energy, performing at or above their potential?

Even with all that said though, it still sometimes distresses me that we have this mindset of immediately soldiering on.  Is it a reaction to being in shock? Of wanting things back to some semblance of normalcy as soon as possible? Is it ever ok to just climb into bed, pull the blankets over our heads and let the terrorists win, even if just temporarily?

In cases involving time sensitive events, like the Olympics, the decision becomes even more pressing. In 1972, they decided to not let the terrorists win (I wonder how the families of the slain felt about that win) and just postponed the Games for 24 hours. They had a memorial service and 5 days later the marathon gun went off, with the American men (as you know, the ladies weren’t running yet due to concerns of their uteruses falling out) posting 1st (giddy-up Frank Shorter, one of my favs), 4th  and 9th place finishes, the best the US had done since the 1908 Olympics.

Frank Shorter and Kenny Moore, shortly after the race.

In the end, I guess we all just fumble through these dark periods and do what feels like the “right thing”, whatever that is. The article ends with a quote from one of the American athletes, Tom Dooley, who said, “The Games should go on, who wins or loses now is ridiculously unimportant, considered against these men’s deaths. But we have to stay together.”

What are your thoughts? Carry-on or standstill?

Have you ever had to make a decision like this?


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2 responses to “Runner’s World Review – Olympic Tragedy: Munich 1972

  1. Linda Kisiel

    No, I haven’t had to make a decision like that. You have a point about sometimes just taking some time to reflect on a tradegy gives you some perspective. Excellent blog. I remember it so well and crying even then for the fallen. I don;t think there ever is a right answer. Enjoy your moonlit run tonight. Good luck to the OC runners tomorrow. I

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