Revisiting the Olympics' Darkest Day

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KURT STRUMPF/AP

A Palestinian terrorist shows himself at the 1972 Munich Olympics

Friendship among nations based on mutual recognition and respect has always been the essence of the Olympic spirit. And it was that spirit that animated the broad smile on the face of Israeli fencing coach Alex Spitzer in Munich in the summer of 1972, as he sauntered back to his wife, Ankie, after chatting with members of the team representing Lebanon, a nation with whom Alex's was legally at war.

But there were other national agendas seeking recognition during that fateful Olympiad — a liberal, democratic Germany seeking to finally shed the ghosts of its authoritarian past and a small group of Palestinians convinced that only spectacular acts of violence could remind the world of the plight of their forgotten people — and the confluence of those agendas cost Alex Spitzer, as well as 10 of his Israeli teammates, their lives.

The documentary "One Day in September" aired by HBO Monday night is a timely reminder, on the eve of the Sydney Olympiad, of the day the Games lost their innocence. It's extremely unlikely today, of course, that a group of terrorists planning a rampage of murder and mayhem in Sydney would be able to gain access to the Olympic Village simply by scaling a fence late at night with the help of some curfew-busting, drunk American athletes. And no Olympic organizers would ever again make the mistake of having the event policed by unarmed security officers and having no anti-terrorism squad in the host city.

But "One Day in September" is troubling nonetheless, for its reminder that even the ugliest acts of terrorism — and bungled official responses — are driven by choices made in a political context. And while the security arrangements today are infinitely more advanced than they were at Munich in 1972, the scourge of terrorism remains.

The documentary prevents easy political judgments by counterposing the divergent narratives of two of the players involved at the heart of the drama: The human story of Alex Spitzer, recounted by his widow, contends with that of Jamal al Gashey, the sole survivor among the Palestinian militants who carried out the massacre.

Spitzer is plainly a noble and lovable human being, and the viewer is struck not only by the senselessness of his death but also by the honor and courage with which he and his colleagues conducted themselves in the face of death. The Munich Olympiad was sandwiched between two bloody wars in which the Jewish state fought for its survival, and its athletes and coaches were clearly part of a nation prepared for war. Confronted by armed men speaking Arabic, they appear to immediately understand the situation and some are even able to quickly make tactical choices — such as the wounded Israeli coach ordered at gunpoint to lead his captors to more Israeli athletes who bypasses the apartment housing the track athletes, calculating that the weightlifters and wrestlers would stand a better chance of overpowering their assailants. Our hearts are with these Israeli athletes — who we've seen laying wreaths at Dachau only minutes earlier — whose triumphant "return" to the very cradle of Nazism has been turned into a nightmare.

And yet, from our very first encounter with al Gashey on screen, it's hard to ignore the sense that it was the narrative of his own life that landed him in Munich on that fateful day, guarding the downstairs doorway to the apartment housing the Israelis as his comrades went upstairs to begin the siege. Counterposed with images of Spitzer's happy wedding are images of the squalor of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, as al Gashey recounts his family's expulsion from Israel in 1948, and their subsequent despair. It's only when he joins a guerrilla organization that he develops some sense of Palestinian identity and pride, and when after months of intense training he hears of the intended target, he expresses his joy at being given an opportunity to "confront the Israelis."

The humanity of these two men collides in the early hours of September 4, creating a bizarre, almost surreal spectacle. Sportcasters such as Howard Cosell find themselves on point as hundreds of television cameras beam images of the terrorists' leader, "Issa," who for some reason has blackened his face and wears a white hat as he coolly lays down his terms to German officials ranging from a bemused young policewoman with whom he shares a cigarette to Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher, who confesses with hindsight to being quite taken with Issa's obvious charisma. His second in command, "Tony," constantly appears at a window wearing a tight red and yellow satin shirt and a white cowboy hat, looking more like a rock star than an insurgent. But while the guerrillas are single-minded and serious, the German authorities are bemused and the Olympic Committee more inclined, at least in this retelling, to sweep away the embarrassment of the siege than to protect the lives of the hostages. The callousness of the IOC's decision to proceed with events in the course of the siege is conveyed in a montage of slow-motion footage of that day's events, driven by a Led Zeppelin track.

But such callousness pales before the epic ineptitude of the German authorities, who by the account in "One Day in September" could arguably be held at least partly responsible for the athletes' deaths. With no SWAT team to call on, they assemble an unfortunate-looking squad of volunteer policemen disguised as athletes, except that the World War II-era steel helmets and submachine guns undo any camouflage effect created by their gaudy Adidas track suits, and put them into position to storm the Israelis' besieged compound. They call off the raid at the last moment, and only then realize that the gunmen had been watching them get into position on television because the whole thing was being broadcast live on the world's networks.

Their final plan is to concede to the Palestinians' demand for a flight out to an unnamed Arab country and then to ambush them at the airport. Except that the "snipers" had neither the training nor the equipment for the job, and the four policemen deployed aboard the airliner "vote among themselves" to abandon the operation for lack of confidence in their own abilities, only seconds before their targets arrive. The snipers aren't in radio contact, haven't been preassigned targets, and are told that there are four rather than eight terrorists. And someone forgot to order up the armored cars for the final assault until 20 minutes after the shooting starts. The resulting debacle now becomes a tragicomic debacle, with German policemen shooting each other, and some two hours into the shootout the Palestinians kill all the hostages with a hand grenade and machine gun fire. This from the nation that gave the world Blitzkrieg. They then follow up by lying to the world's media, sending out a global sigh of relief — which makes the front page from London to Tel Aviv — with a communiqué announcing that all of the hostages have been freed alive, only to retract the following day and admit they're all dead.

At the end of the film we're left with the sadness of Ankie Spitzer and the resolute militancy of Jamal al Gashey. He's proud of what he did in Munich, he tells the camera. It brought the Palestinian cause to the world's attention. And it's hard to not to understand his gruesome thinking, even in these post-Oslo days of mutual recognition. It's noticeable that in all of the footage from 1972, the word "Palestinian" is never used. The gunmen are described simply as "Arab." Indeed, at the time of Munich, the Palestinians were still a forgotten people and Israeli prime minister Golda Meir was notoriously insisting they did not exist. Vilified throughout the Western world, his slain comrades were nonetheless given a heroes' burial by thousands of supporters in Libya. For Spitzer and his colleagues, their countrymen and millions of sympathizers, it was a senseless act of brutality.

There was a moment, of course, when the stress of the heart-stopping drama may have pushed both men, momentarily, to acknowledge each other's humanity. Al Gashey recalls that hours into the siege, he and his comrades standing guard began chatting with the Israelis, exchanging stories and jokes. The all-too-human exchange ended when Issa came in and ordered silence, believing it would be harder for the Palestinians to kill their captives if they'd engaged them as human beings. And that's a lesson both sides learned two decades later in their tortuous peace process. They may disagree on fundamentals, but their ongoing conversation makes it a lot harder to imagine going back to war.