By Phillip Whitten
AT the 1972 Munich Olympics, Mark Spitz turned in the greatest performance in any sport in Olympic history, winning 7 events — all in world record time! It is a feat that may never be matched.
Less than a day later, on September 5, 1972, Palestinian terrorists shattered the Olympic peace by seizing, then murdering, 11 Israeli Olympians in the darkest incident in Olympic history. Because he is Jewish, Spitz was also considered to be a terrorist target.
On this, the 30th anniversary of the massacre, SwimInfo caught up with Spitz and asked him to reflect on the fateful events of September 1972. Here's what he had to say:
SwimInfo: Where were you when you first learned that Arab terrorists had invaded the Olympic Village?
Spitz: I had gone out dinner late the night before with Jerry Kirschenbaum (writer with Sports Illustrated) and Heinz Klutmeier (photographer with SI) after winning my seventh gold medal. I didn’t get back to the Village until 1 a.m. At 8 a.m., (Coach) Sherm (Chavoor) and I left the apartment in the Village, and walked right past Connollystrasse (where the terrorists were holding the Israeli athletes hostage). As it turned out, the terrorists had already murdered two of the Israeli athletes, but no one knew that then.
I got into a VW bus with (coaches Peter) Daland, (George) Haines, (Sherm) Chavoor, and (Don) Gambril and a bunch of USOC guys, and we drove to the Press Center. When we got there I saw Jerry and Heinz, and they asked: “Did you hear what happened?” and I said “Yeah, I won seven gold medals.” That’s when they told me that Arab terrorists had broken into the Village, seized some Israeli athletes and were holding them hostage.
SwimInfo: What happened next?
Spitz: So we went into the Press Center and there was a horde of media people. To say it was overcrowded would be an understatement. It was so jammed you couldn’t get in. Everyone kept asking me about the terrorists and Israeli hostages. There wasn’t one question about swimming. But I didn’t know any more about the terrorist situation than anyone else. The press conference was supposed to last an hour, but it went longer. Then we went over to ABC for an interview.
SwimInfo: Was that with Jim McKay?
Spitz: Yeah, we got to the small makeshift ABC studio and Jim McKay was there putting on his coat and tie. We all went over to watch the monitors. We saw the guy with the white hat walk out on the balcony, then he negotiated with a German woman, but there was no sound so no one knew what they were saying. McKay eventually did the interview with me, but it never aired. There were more important events going on.
SwimInfo: Is that when you left Germany?
Spitz: No. We went back to the Village. It was now 11:30 am and somewhere along the line I had been assigned a security detail. Meanwhile, at 1 p.m., the rest of the US swim team left on a bus to go to Garmischpartenkirchen for a FINA party.
I was still with Sherm, and the plan was to go to Stuttgart where I was to be presented with a new Mercedes 450SL. Then we were to drive to Frankfurt and take a flight to Chicago, where I would drive the car to Indianapolis. I was already 2-1/2 weeks late for dental school.
SwimInfo: But that’s not what happened…
Spitz: That’s right. After the team left, we were watching what was happening on TV. At that time it appeared that the entire Israeli team was being held by the terrorists, not just the wrestlers and weight-lifters. There was no information that anyone had been killed and we were told the two sides were negotiating.
SwimInfo: Weren’t there rumors about your whereabouts and safety then?
Spitz: Yes. As I watched TV, I’d keep hearing: “Spitz is in Italy,” or “Spitz has left for the U.S.” But I was still in the Olympic Village. About 2 p.m., my father showed up. (Chancellor) Willy Brandt had provided a helicopter for him and flew him from Garmisch, where my family was staying, to Munich.
A short time later, a group of USOC officials came in, and they told me they were sending me back to the US. By then I had six armed guards, four inside the room and two outside. One of the guards in the room was translating everything on the TV for me from German to English. At about 6 p.m., the officials decided to move us, but they were not sure how.
SwimInfo: Now didn’t you have an obligation to do a poster before returning home?
Spitz: Yes. It seemed so unimportant while this life-and-death drama was taking place, but I felt I should fulfill my obligation. Besides, Der Stern had already paid me $50,000 to do the poster—you know, the one with the seven gold medals. We decided to shoot it in London.
SwimInfo: So you went to London?
Spitz: Yes. We first went to an underground garage, got into that Mercedes and drove to the Munich airport. My movements were supposed to be a secret, but there was a horde of reporters to interview me. Anyway, I was hustled aboard a plane and we flew to London. At the airport we got into a taxi and drove about half way to the city, then switched to a private car with Secret Service guys inside.
SwimInfo: So you arrived in London and were able to avoid the press.
Spitz: Yes. It had been an incredible day. Now it was 9 pm, and I remember Sherm was in his jammies. He turned to me and said: “Jesus, you’re dangerous to travel with.”
The next morning, the newspaper headlines had the terrible news that all 11 Israelis had been killed and that there’d been a shootout between the terrorists and the German police.
I completely freaked out. Here it was, 27 years after the end of World War II, and there were still madmen killing Jews because they are Jews.
I was hardly in the mood to do that poster, but we went to a studio and shot it.
SwimInfo: And after that?
Spitz: At 10 a.m., we went to Heathrow and I was put on a plane, I think it was a Pan Am, that flew nonstop to L.A. I had my medals in the cockpit, where I sat with the pilot during takeoff. Because there was a sense that I might still be in danger because I’m Jewish, the airline gave us the entire upstairs of the 747. No one else was allowed up. But after we were underway for a while, the pilot asked if I would walk through the main cabin and greet everyone. I said “of course.” And he made an announcement that I was on board and would be walking up and down the aisles to greet everyone.
SwimInfo: How did that go?
Spitz: It was fine. Everyone was pretty calm. People were very friendly, but almost no one asked for my autograph. With the murder of the Israelis and the shattering of the Olympic peace, it was too solemn an occasion for that.
SwimInfo: So what happened when you arrived in LA?
Spitz: Well, my whereabouts were still supposed to be a secret, but when we got to LA there was a mob of reporters and photographers to greet me. We boarded a PSA flight to Sacramento, but the press had anticipated what we’d do, and almost every seat on the flight was occupied by a media person. To be fair, I gave each reporter four minutes to ask questions.
SwimInfo: And what happened when you arrived home?
Spitz: By Wednesday morning I was watching the Olympic memorial service on TV with my two sisters.
The whole thing took on a surreal quality. On Monday night I finished my last event in Munich. On Tuesday morning I learned the Israelis had been taken hostage. By Tuesday night I was in London. And on Wednesday morning I was in Sacramento, sitting in my living room like Johnny Lunchbucket, watching the Olympics on TV, as if I had never been there. The only difference was that I had two Secret Service guards for a week outside my home.
A few days later I was in Temple for a Rosh Hashanah service, sitting next to Governor (Ronald) Reagan. That’s when the significance of the whole sequence of events really hit me.
SwimInfo: Did you ever feel in danger during the episode?
Spitz: No, not ever. Those responsible for the safety of the US swim team always knew where we were, and I always felt I was being protected.
SwimInfo: Mark, it’s now 30 years after the terrible Munich Massacre. What changes have those events brought to the Olympic Games?
Spitz: It was the end of innocence. In Munich, despite official statements to the contrary, security was pretty lax. I think the terrorists cased the Village posing as Brazilian friends of the Brazilian team. That couldn’t happen nowadays. Today, security is much tighter, but the Games have loss a sense of spontaneity, a sense of the whole world coming together in peaceful competition.
SwimInfo: Do you think the Games could be a terrorist target in the future?
Spitz: I’m sure they could be, but I think it’s unlikely. Terrorists usually don’t hit the same place twice. Of course, I don’t claim to have any insights into the minds of these people. But if they did try to hit the Games, it would be much harder today than it was in 1972.
SwimInfo: Did the events in Munich result in your publicly identifying more as a Jew?
Spitz: Absolutely. It made me aware of my responsibility to acknowledge that, yes, I am Jewish. You know, before Munich, that issue hardly ever came up. I think most people knew I was Jewish, but there were no consequences of it. I mean, I was a 22 year-old kid, and no one cared about my opinions on international politics, terrorism or other global issues.
After Munich, I was asked a lot of questions, and I felt an obligation to affirm my ties as a Jew and to become educated on the issues, so I could speak knowledgeably.
Back then, I think a lot of Jewish athletes shied away from identifying publicly as a Jew, with exceptions like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. Now, most Jewish athletes are very open about being Jews and that’s a good thing. Of course, I feel that’s a trend among all ethnic groups – there’s much more pride today in being a member of a particular ethnic group.
SwimInfo: Finally, why do you think there’s so much interest now in these events of 30 years ago?
Spitz: It’s 9-11. No question. If 9-11 hadn’t happened, I don’t think the 30th anniversary of the Munich massacre would even register. After all, the 25th anniversary of an event is usually considered more significant than the 30th, but 1997 passed and there was no big deal about Munich .
Now that America has experienced an even more horrifying terrorist attack in another September, we recall those terrible days thirty years ago when this senseless murder of innocent civilians seemed to all begin.