Sunday, July 15, 2012

The end of the innocence

I was 11 years old when the 1968 Olympics were held, marking the first time that the Olympics were really on my radar. The Winter Games were held in Grenoble, France, and the highlights were the three gold medals won by the dashing French skier, Jean-Claude Killy, and the figure skating medal won by the long-legged, uber-cute American Peggy Fleming.

Later that year, the summer games (yes, they used to have winter and summer games in the same year) were held in Mexico City, where Bob Beamon stunned the athletic world by shattering the long jump record by nearly two feet. Al Oerter won his fourth discus gold medal. Dick Fosbury won gold while high-jumping backwards - The Fosbury Flop - which immediately revolutionized his sport.

For young Tim Droogsma, already dreaming of becoming a sportswriter, the Olympics were a feast. So many stories, so many colorful figures, so many different events. Even now it's hard to explain just how much I loved sitting in front of the TV watching all of it.

And then there was a four-year wait for it to come back. Leap years, presidential elections and the Olympics all took place together every four years, and when the 1972 games came around, I was ready. In February, the winter games in Sapporo, Japan, were a bit of a letdown. The U.S. won a silver medal in hockey that was unexpected, but there weren't many Americans who did much. The summer games, I was sure, would be better.

Now 15 and just starting my junior year of high school (yes, I was a four-year-old kindergartner with a November birthday.....pretty much the youngest kid in every class I was ever in) I was glued to the TV for the first 10 days of the Munich Olympics. A couple of American distance runners - Dave Wottle and Frank Shorter - won gold medals. A tiny Russian named Olga Korbut won three gymnastics golds and charmed the world. Mark Spitz did the unthinkable and won seven gold medals in swimming. A kid from just down the road in Iowa, Dan Gable, won a wrestling gold without having a single point scored against him. I was loving it all.

A Black September terrorist at the Munich Massacre
And on September 5, it all went south.

We awoke expecting more competition, and instead we saw terror. A group of Palestinian terrorists calling themselves "Black September" had sneaked into the Olympic village and stormed an apartment housing Israeli athletes and coaches. Two of the Israelis were already dead, nine were being held hostage, and the games had been halted.

I'd like to say that at age 15 I had a deep, profound understanding of the issues in the Middle East, but I'd be lying if I did. I asked my parents about it, and my high school history teacher, and it probably was the first time in my life that I had any kind of exposure to, or understanding of, the existence of virulent anti-semitism and hatred of Israel.

There are a number of great places to read the rest of the story - this Wikipedia entry is particularly good - but in a nutshell it ended like this: After some negotiations, the terrorists and their hostages were taken by helicopter to a local air base, where they thought they were getting on a plane and flying to Egypt. Instead, the German authorities tried to ambush the terrorists. But their plan was both poorly conceived and poorly executed, and in the end most of the terrorists and all of the hostages were killed. ABC announcer Jim McKay's sobering "They're all gone" call (click on it below) is an iconic moment in broadcasting.

The entire ugliness was made even worse the next day, when 80,000 people filled the Olympic stadium for a memorial service. The Olympic flag, and the flags off all the competing nations, were lowered to half-staff, but 10 Arab nations objected, claiming that dead Jews were nothing to mourn. Their flags were raised back to the top of the flagpoles.

I'd like to say that the opinions I formed in those two days were based on my new insights into giant geo-political struggles, but the truth is that mostly I was just mad that the games were interrupted and tainted, and I blamed the thoughtless jerks who perpetrated the atrocity. My mind was immediately made up: Israel/Jews = good. Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims = bad.

Admittedly it was a simple formulation, but in the ensuing 40 years nothing has happened to alter my viewpoint very much. As I learned more of the Middle East over the years - eventually working for a U.S. Senator who sat on the Foreign Relations Committee - I found that simple insight to be a solid compass point when pondering any Middle East question.

And just in case I wasn't disgusted enough by the Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims and their thirst for innocent blood, they went out of their way over the years to remind me: The Achille Lauro, the barracks in Beirut, the Tel Aviv disco, the seemingly endless parade of suicide bombers and, of course, the 9/11 attacks. They seemed, at every turn, to remind us that the only way they could express themselves was in mindless violence and the killing of innocents.

When Yasser Arafat - who knew of the Munich attack in advance and approved of it - was embraced by Jimmy Carter, it sickened me. When Arafat was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, the Nobel ceased to have any credibility.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre, you'll read more about the ways in which the International Olympic Committee has disgraced itself over the years in regards to the massacre. It has refused Israeli requests for a moment of silence at this year's ceremony to remember the dead. It has rebuffed the construction of any permanent memorial to the dead Israelis, with one IOC member quoted as saying that such a memorial would "alienate other members of the Olympic community." Yeah, especially the ones who get their kicks killing people.

The Munich games took away any innocent ideals I might have had about the Olympics. A few years later they abandoned the idea of amateur competition, then became both hyper-commercialized and hyper-politicized. African nations boycotted the 1976 Montreal games. The U.S. refused to go to the 1980 Moscow games, and the Soviets retaliated by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles games.

The entire Olympic "movement" has lost its luster in many ways, but much of the tarnish can be traced directly back to Munich, and I suspect there are very few, if any, 15-year-olds who are filled with anticipation of another Olympiad the way I was 40 years ago.

No comments:

Post a Comment