When The Terror Began

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OLYMPIC SYMBOL: A Black September commando appears on the balcony of the building where the Israeli team members were held

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Willi Daume, president of the Munich organizing committee, at first wanted the remainder of the Games called off, but Brundage and others prevailed. "I too questioned the decision to continue," says former mayor Vogel, "but over time I came to believe that we couldn't let the Olympics come to a halt from the hand of terrorism."

So, after a memorial service on Sept. 6, the Carefree Games resumed. Many of the 80,000 people who filled the Olympic Stadium for West Germany's soccer match with Hungary carried noisemakers and waved flags, while authorities did nothing to intervene in the name of decorum. Yet when several spectators unfurled a banner reading 17 dead, already forgotten? security officers seized the sign and expelled the offenders from the grounds.

It's part of the protocol of every Olympics that organizers shall publish an official report of great scope and heft. Munich's is Teutonically comprehensive. It praises Mark Spitz for his feats in the pool and Olga Korbut for hers on the mats, and the informal Olympic Village for its contribution to the relaxed spirit of the Games. And it recounts the atrocities perpetrated on members of the Israeli delegation in dispassionate, mostly exculpatory prose. Then it adds this grotesque rationalization: "After the terrible events of September 5, 1972, it was once again the atmosphere of the Olympic Village which contributed a great deal to calming down and preserving peace among the athletes."

"This will be a very secure place"

in their negligence suit the families of the victims argued that the Germans should have anticipated some attack. If it wasn't enough that Georg Sieber laid out the entire plan, Black September had staged five operations in Europe over the previous 10 months, including three in West Germany. The families also allege that German intelligence had received at least three reports between Aug. 21 and Sept. 2 of Palestinian terrorists flowing into the region. Early in 2001 the Germans, who the families say had for years denied that a report on the disaster even existed, finally settled with the families, offering a pool of $3 million in compensation, to be paid out in equal thirds by the German, Bavarian and Munich governments. (This was in addition to bereavement funds of $1 million doled out by the German Red Cross in the immediate aftermath of the attack.) But the families have yet to receive any money from this "humanitarian" fund, and they believe the Germans haven't released all the evidence that exists. Moreover, they still wait for an expression of remorse or responsibility. "If they would only say to us, 'Look, we tried, we didn't know what we were doing, we didn't mean for what happened to happen, we're sorry' — that would be the end of it," says Ankie Spitzer, fencing coach Andr´┐Ż's widow. "But they've never even said that."

Sieber has never again worked with an organizing committee for a sporting event. "It's nothing but frustration," he says. "The officials aren't able to develop a tradition because everyone is a rookie. Nine out of 10 aren't paid — they're volunteers — and the paid professional can't lead them. This disaster in Munich, it was a horror trip, the whole thing, a chain of catastrophes large and small. Who paid? O.K., the German government paid, but of those individuals who were responsible, no one paid. We can't change the past. But more important, we're not learning for the future, because nothing's really different."

In fact Munich changed forever how the Olympics are conducted. Athletes at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid stayed in a Village built to be so secure it was eventually converted into a prison. Later that year, in Moscow, the Soviets X-rayed every piece of incoming luggage at the airport and deployed 240,000 militiamen to show they meant business. Though the U.S.S.R.'s boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was surely payback to the U.S. for passing up those Moscow Games, the Soviets claimed they stayed home because of inadequate security, even as the L.A. Olympics introduced such gadgets as a remote-controlled robot that could examine suspicious objects. Sixteen years ago the I.O.C. began to collect and share information related to security and in 1997 formally established a "transfer of knowledge" program so Olympic know-how — from the food tasters for athletes in Seoul to the palm-print recognition technology in Atlanta — could be passed from one organizing committee to the next. To help Athens prepare for 2004, security experts from Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Spain and the U.S. are collaborating with Olympic organizers and the Greek authorities.

While the Greeks have their own historical baggage, they seem to be toting it more lightly than the Germans in 1972. The military junta that ruthlessly ruled from 1967 to '74 was detested by most Greeks, who pride themselves on living in the birthplace of democracy. A homegrown terrorist group, 17 November, took its name from a bloody student uprising on that date in 1973, and over the past three decades its members have targeted various representatives of Western governments that supported military rule. 17 November has claimed responsibility for more than 100 attacks that have killed 22 people and wounded scores of others, yet there hadn't been a single arrest in 26 years.

Then, in June, police caught a break. A bomb accidentally exploded in Piraeus, gravely injuring the man carrying it. Tips poured in, and over the next several weeks police raided 17 November hideouts, seized weapons and charged at least 10 people with involvement in the group. A Western diplomat posted in Athens also points approvingly to the government's plan to deploy at least 7,000 armed troops in the streets during the Games. "The public reaction to that announcement was silence," he says. "Given the aversion of the average citizen here to anything that smacks of the junta, that was a big, big sign. But then this is a post-Sept. 11 Olympics, and Sept. 11 changed the way all of us look at the world. Plus, people take a lot of pride in being Greek. They want to look good in the eyes of the world."

Those in the security field believe that no group poses a greater threat to the 2004 Olympics than al-Qaeda. Many experts suspect that "Afghan alumni" have joined up with al-Qaeda cells in Albania, the anarchic, predominantly Muslim nation that abuts Greece to the north. The challenge will be to secure a country that has long been a transfer point between Europe and the Mideast — to protect not only Greece's rugged mountain borders, but also thousands of kilometers of coastline and hundreds of ports. As one Israeli counterterrorism expert puts it, "It's so much easier to bounce from the Middle East to a barren island in Greece and then make your way to Athens than to travel halfway around the globe to prepare for an attack in Sydney."

The concrete structures of Athens' Olympic Village are sprouting at the base of Mount Parnis, on the northern edge of the city. Builders and suppliers desperately try to keep to a schedule, despite several work stoppages and four on-the-job deaths. Most of the 2,300 workers on the site are Greek, but scores of them aren't. "We don't screen everyone," says Katerina Barbosa, an official with the private company building the Village. "But at this point we have nothing to fear. By the end of the year this will be a very secure place."

Sieber refuses to talk specifically about Athens. But he brings up one of his 30-year-old scenarios, one that might give Greek organizers pause, especially in light of the dynamite and hand grenade discovered early this month buried next to the 1896 Olympic stadium, which is slated to be used as a venue in 2004. "[The Basque separatist group] ETA is very patient," Sieber says, his imagination vivid as ever. "They pick out a man they want to kill. They send one of their operatives, disguised as a worker, to the construction site for his new home and plant a bomb. For several years they do nothing. Then one morning, perhaps after he is married, with a family, they detonate it by radio. He finds himself up in the sky."
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