Attack on 1972 Games Shadows Olympics

Commentator Frank Shorter won his gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He recalls the terrorist attack on the Israeli team, and says the Olympics have been overshadowed by the threat of terrorism ever since.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Commentator Frank Shorter represented the United States in the marathon in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. He was preparing for that race when the Olympics were overshadowed by the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists.

Mr. FRANK SHORTER (Former Olympic Marathon Runner, Commentator): I heard the early morning gunshots, because I was sleeping on the balcony of our crowded Olympic Village apartment. I didn't know people had just died inside the Olympic Village. Later that morning, we stood in shock as distance runner Steve Prefontaine translated a German telecast. He told of the massacre of Israeli athletes by gunmen who'd surprised them in their apartment, right across the courtyard from us. We all went out to look. How stupid were we?

Over the course of the day, I think we actually saw one of the gunmen in a mask. If he pointed his AK-47 at us, we might have been hit. We climbed over the locked back gate of the village to take our daily training. The guards just shouldered their rifles and smiled as we left and returned. Incredibly, the same way the terrorists had entered. I guess they didn't view us as violating the lockdown. How stupid were they?

From TV and the rumor mill at the cafeteria, we heard how many Israeli athletes had died, and how many were prisoners. The initial consensus was we should all go home. The games were over. People had died, and nothing we were there to do was as important as human life.

Early that evening, helicopters flew over our heads and landed on the other side of the Israeli quarters. Minutes later, they headed to the Munich Airport. My friends relaxed, and the tension lifted. But I turned to fellow marathoner, Kenny Moore, and said Kenny, I don't think this is over. Later we learned everyone was dead, killed at the airport.

The next day, walking from the memorial service at the Olympic Stadium, we forged our collective resolve. The games were going to go on. We felt the Israeli athletes would have wanted this. I had a vague feeling that if as a team, we did not try to win our remaining events, the terrorists would somehow win instead.

Security tightened up overnight. It was a disorganized scramble to minimize risks. I saw swimmer Mark Spitz, who's Jewish, being whisked out of the village and out of the country. It dawned on me that with the heightened security, the only place something might happen would be out on the marathon course. I once again turned to Kenny and said, I simply wasn't going to think about it. I couldn't bring back the Israeli athletes or their coaches, but I could have control over my place in the tragedy. I could run my race and give my all, and in my own private way, defy the terrorists.

I ran the 1972 Olympics marathon, and never once, once, thought about terrorism. I did it that way because I simply had to. We arrived in Munich innocent athletes, and left the first Olympic athletes to realize competing carries a risk of harm.

Thirty-four years later, security is a fact of life at the Olympic venues. The security in Turin is massive. I'm sure the athletes are competing with the same resolve we did, because competitive instincts, mental toughness, and focus are the ongoing gift of the Olympic athletes. The athletes don't fear for their safety, but instead focus on their events. They simply have to. There is no other choice.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: That's commentary from Frank Shorter who won the Olympic marathon in Munich in 1972. These days, he runs every day in Boulder, Colorado.

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