Off the Track

I was busy being busy with other things. We looked for our new apartment, bought a second car, moved from Westport to New Rochelle, bought my law books for the coming semester, took the New York State driver’s examination (congratulating ourselves for our perfect scores on a test designed for people who could barely read), and watched the Olympics – the 1972 Munich Olympics, one of those moments when time stopped.

For years I had dreams of making the Olympic team (running). I never quite got it together and ultimately accepted I was not good enough. That year, the Olympics started in late August and ran through September 11th. I was particularly interested because Frank Shorter was running in two races, the 10,000 meters and the marathon. I raced against Frank in cross-country and track, first in prep school, later in college. He always beat me at cross-country, and I sometimes beat him in the shorter distances. Frank graduated early from Yale and went to Florida to train with, among others, Barry Brown (the ¨Pied Piper of runners,¨ according to Marty Liquori). Barry, an All-American, graduated from Providence College the year before I entered Brown University, in  1965. In my freshman year, we had a ¨practice¨ meet against Providence College at the indoor track of Moses Brown, an East Providence prep school. I ran the mile, 11 laps on tight turns. Since it was not an official meet, the freshmen ran with the varsity, and Barry Brown raced as well. I thought I was pretty good. I ran with Barry, neck and neck, lap after lap. I, the upstart freshman, was going to take him down. We got to the beginning of the final lap. I felt great, just hanging off Barry’s right shoulder – and then. . . . Barry took off. He smoked me, winning by a half lap, all of which was gained on the final leg. A distant second, I peeked across the oval to watch him glide past the finish. Barry, who committed suicide in 1992, was considered an elite runner lacking only a closer’s speed, something that kept him from ever making an Olympic team. By the time I finished the race, he already had his sweats on. When, years later, I read of his suicide (apparently for financial reasons) I wondered how someone seemingly so successful could end their life by going into the garage, starting a red Mercedes, and letting it run. He left behind a wife, a 7-year-old boy, and a note saying he had nowhere to turn. The son, Darren , understandably sad and angry, later became a runner himself. When he broke the 4 minute mile at the Texas relays in 2008 (3:59.99), he became the back-end of the first father/son duo both to break that  benchmark barrier, something worth seeing.  (www.news.youthrunner.com/news/story/darren-browns-race-of-a-lifetime; www.runnersworld.com/article/o,7120,s6-243-297–13149-2-1X2X3X4X5X6X7X8X9X10-11,00.html).

Barry was a member of the fabled Florida Track Club, along with Frank and other highly succesful runners. My self-comparison with Frank, tenuous as it was, ended there. Frank Shorter vaulted into stardom on a national level, ranked the best U.S. runner at 10,000 meters and the marathon for 1972. I went to Dedham. At the Olympics, Frank raced first in the 10,000 meter final, held on September 3rd, finishing 5th to a world record performance by Lasse Viren of Finland (who also won the 5000 meters, a rare double that he would duplicate 4 years later in Montreal). Two days later, life got ugly. There are events that stand out for their sheer audacity, their impact on each of us. The assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, RFK, John Lennon; the events of 9/11. For older people, maybe the threat of Hitler, the Battle of Normandy or Hiroshima. And for those older still, perhaps the sinking of the Titanic, the trial and electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the stock market crash of 1929, or the Great Depression. These are events that effect everyone, enter the collective consciousness. Other events, equally audacious, equally difficult to comprehend, are more personal, like a father’s suicide, the burden of keeping a family secret, or, yes, the abandonment of a child.

The 1972 Munich Olympic Games (dubbed the ¨Happy Games¨ by German officials) were the first held in Germany since the fiasco of Adolf Hitler‘s Games in 1936. Hitler intended to parade before the world his vision of a superior ¨Aryan¨ race (which did not even exist). He was upstaged by a superior black athlete, Jesse Owens, who won 4 track and field gold medals right under the Führer’s moustache-dotted nose. After Hitler shook only the hands of German gold medal winners on the first day, Olympic officials directed he must similarly acknowledge all of the winners, or none of them. He chose none. While the media had a field day portraying the black American athletes showing up Hitler and his concept of racial supremacy, it was overwhelmingly silent a few weeks later when John Robinson, a black American gold medal winner (800 meter run), was denied the right to compete in a track meet at the U.S. Naval Academy because he was black – a hero in Germany (where he, Owens, and other black athletes were cheered by Nazi crowds, if not by the Führer), a disqualification at home. (www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/olympics//detail.php?content=aa_athletes&lang=en).

In August, 1970 my soon-to-be wife and I visited Munich, along with a college friend. The city, then part of West Germany, was preparing for the 1972 Games, a Games designed to heal some of the wounds caused by Hitler and his quest for world dominance of his made-up Aryan race. We rented a little Renault for the summer, with a 5 speed shift on the dashboard. Early one morning I drove around a rotary at rush hour, taking what I thought was an exit heading out of the city towards Fussen, a Bavarian town near the site of Mad Ludwig’s Castle. Instead, we found ourselves (I still don’t know how) driving over train tracks into one of Munich’s few above-ground U-Bahn stations. The U-Bahn, the city’s electric railway system, was in the midst of an upgrade  for the coming Olympic Games. Entering the station on the tracks, we were met with Aryan-like stares from the several hundred Germans standing above on the concrete platform and  peering down the track for their morning train. Feeling a bit inferior, I slammed into reverse and retreated to the rotary before the next U-Bahn train punched our ticket. Safely back at the rotary, I stopped to ask directions to Neuschwanstein (Mad Ludwig’s Castle): ¨Wo ist Fussen¨, I asked, in German (Boston style) to a blond, blue-eyed pedestrian, who supplied my blond, blue-eyed face with a detailed and completely indecipherable explanation in perfect German – to which I politely answered ¨Danke shein,¨ got back in the Renault, and took out our yet to be reliable map.

In the early morning of September 5, 1972, with 6 days left in Games, 8 Palestinian terrorists, belonging to a group called Black September, entered the Munich Olympic compound in track suits and carrying duffel bags concealing AK assault rifles, Tokarev pistols and grenades.  They quickly entered apartments used by members of the Israeli team. In the struggle that ensued two athletes were killed immediately, and the 9 Israelis that did not escape were taken hostage. Wearing eerie-looking ski masks, and dumping the body one of the killed Israelis (Moshe Weinberg) outside the apartment door, Black September demanded the release of more than 200 Palestinians and others held in Israeli jails. Israel announced there would be no negotiation. After almost 18 hours the terrorists and hostages were flown by helicopter to a NATO airbase (Furstenfeldbruck), ostensibly to fly to Cairo, Egypt. The German authorities planned a rescue attempt, though they underestimated the number of terrorists. In the ensuing battle, all the hostages were killed, 5 (bound and defenseless) shot in one of the helicopters and then incinerated by a grenade tossed into the cockpit by one terrorist (Luttif Afif, the leader). The other 4 were machine-gunned to death. All but 3 of the terrorists were killed. By most accounts, the Germans were considered to have mismanaged the armed assault on the terrorists. The three captured terrorists, one of whom feigned death on the tarmac, were jailed. Jim McKay, covering the Olympics for ABC, went on the air shortly before 3:30 a.m. to correct earlier reports the hostages had been saved. I was still up watching. With the resignation of defeat hanging in the air, McKay announced: ¨They’re all gone.¨

On October 29, 1972, less than 2 months after what came to be known as the Munich Massacre, 2 terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa Boeing 727 in Beirut, Lebanon and directed that it be flown to Munich. They demanded the release of the remaining 3 Black September terrorists awaiting trial in West Germany. The German government quickly agreed and two of the terrorists were immediately flown back to Libya to heroes welcomes. The Israelis were not consulted. Evidence later implied that the Lufthansa hijacking and subsequent release of the hostages was, in fact, the brainchild of a German government worried about further terrorist events in Germany (and perhaps the potential negative publicity of a trial). The Israeli Mossad is said to have later hunted down and killed two of the surviving terrorists. The third (Jamal Al-Gashey) is presumed to be alive still and allegedly hiding in Africa or Syria.

A decision was made to continue the Olympic games, a memorial service being held in the Olympic Stadium on September 6th, less than 24 hours later. The remarks of Avery Brundage, then President of the International Olympic Committee, hardly mentioned the murdered Israeli Olympians and outraged many of the 80,000 spectators. The Games were continued with the full approval of the Israeli government (though their remaining team withdrew). The atmosphere had changed for many athletes, who no longer felt the desire to compete (though most stayed). Dutch distance runner Jos Hermans was quoted as saying  ¨You give a party and someone is killed at the party, you don’t continue the party. I’m going home.¨

Four days later the Olympic Marathon, the final event of the Games, took place. If there was to be another terrorist attack, the marathon was the likely target. Security had finally been increased after the hostage crisis and massacre, but there was no legitimate way to secure all 26+ miles of the race course through the streets and parks of Munich. There were rumors of another terrorist attack, planned for the closing ceremonies. A small airplane was stolen from Stuttgart, and information indicated Arab terrorists planned to drop a bomb on the closing ceremonies. Fighter jets were sent to follow the plane with instructions to shoot it down if it approached Munich. Mysteriously, the plane was never found. Still shell-shocked from the massacre, I followed the race on television, rooting – however tenuous the fantasy – for Frank, in a ¨that could have been me frame of mind.¨ Years before I promised my mother, who each year on Patriot’s Day drove me from Needham over to Heartbreak Hill on Commonwealth Avenue to watch the Boston Marathon, that I would finish that race myself one day (I did, though not until 1977). The Munich Marathon course, covering the standard 26 miles, 385 yards, was designed loosely to form the silhouette of the official Olympic mascot, Waldi (an Olympic first). Designed by Otl Aicher (who later died from a lawn mower accident) Waldi was a dachshund, and  his colors matched those of the Olympic rings (excluding the Nazi colors of black and red). The race was run counter-clockwise, starting at the back of Waldi’s neck and outlining the shape of  his dachshund body, with his rear end represented by Munich’s English Garden, and the entrance to the Olympic Stadium completing the silhouette back at the base of Waldi’s neck. (www.swifterhigher.com/2008/07/meet-the-mascots-waldi-munich.php).

Frank ran the race as a track runner, using surges of speed to challenge the other runners. At the 9 mile mark, a hair pin turn (Waldi’s mouth!) helped give him a 5 yard lead. He used that to break away from the pack (sorry Waldi). Next time he looked he had a 50 yard lead. The surge lasted for 8 miles, and he built a lead of more than 2 minutes over his closest competitors, Karel Lismot of Belgium and Mamo Walde of Ethiopia. At that point he slowed but didn’t look back. Frank had trained for the race by running upwards of 180 miles per week. Now, he had a third of the race, about 9 miles, left to claim an Olympic Gold Medal. No American had won the Olympic Marathon since Johnny Hayes in 1908, preceded by Thomas J. Hicks in 1904 (in fact, they were the only Americans ever to win). Within 3 miles of the finish, he knew from experience that he was running faster than his body was telling him. Listening to his mind, he ran through the pain to approach the stadium entrance. Near the stadium he heard a large roar. Entering the tunnel leading to the track for his three-quarters of a lap to the finish line, he imagined the roar of 70,000 spectators for him. Running out onto the stadium track, he heard …. nothing. A high school student (Norbert Sudhaus) had jumped onto the course a quarter-mile from the finish and entered the Stadium as the ¨winner.¨ Sudhaus got the roar of the crowd, not Frank. (4 years later Frank did not hear the roar of the crowd either, finishing second to Waldemar Cierpinski of East Germany – for years illegal doping accusations have dogged Cierpinski’s two marathon gold medals). Eric Segal, a Yale Classics professor and the author of Love Story (love means never having to say you’re sorry), was one of the television commentators for ABC Sports. He (and I) were apoplectic. How could this be? Instead of cheers, Frank heard whistles and catcalls (for Sudhaus). Shorter thought to himself, ¨okay, I am an American in Europe, but give me a break.¨ The officials realized the injustice and forced the fake off the track. Frank won the race in the second fastest time ever. When later asked what he thought about the guy in front of him, Frank replied: ¨What guy?¨

The Olympics were over. Mark Spitz won 7 gold medals, setting a world record each time (and, being Jewish, was scurried out of Munich before the closing ceremonies because of the potential for being a further terrorist target). Olga Korbut cried, scored a 9.8 on the uneven bars that everyone except the judges thought was a 10.0. She still won 3 gold medals and a silver. The US men’s basketball team lost to the USSR in the most controversial basketball game in Olympic history. A game of two referee directed ¨do-overs¨ gave the Soviets 3 chances to score in the final 3 seconds. The first two were unsuccessful, and the Americans thought they’d won. The third was successful and counted, resulting the first ever loss for the United States since basketball was included in the Games in 1936. An appeal of the game by the Americans was denied and decided on Cold War lines. Frank Shorter won the Olympic Marathon, sparking a running craze in the United States (which included me). And terrorism took a new, bolder face.

It was Sunday, The next day I came home from my law school classes, parking my new-to-me light blue Toyota 1900 on the freshly paved black tar driveway running along the left side of the house. A sunny, cloudless day, I waved to Mrs. Miele tending her vegetable garden and walked around to the wide front porch.  Hopping up the grey wood steps, I opened the small black mailbox to the left of the glass front door. There was just one letter, a white business envelope addressed to me. It was from the Simmons Detective Agency.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The content on this article is really 1 of the most effective material that I’ve ever appear across. I love your submit, I’ll appear back to verify for new posts.

  2. The interjections of historical fact are so important… sometimes we forget that the world has gone on, was going on, and will go on at the same time our own worlds seem to spin in slow motion.


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