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Jewish Journal

Twenty Hours in Munich

by Tom Tugend

August 29, 2002 | 8:00 pm

A member of Black September appears on the balcony of the Olympic Village building. Photo by Kurt Strumpf/AP

A member of Black September appears on the balcony of the Olympic Village building. Photo by Kurt Strumpf/AP

The Germans, desperate to erase memories of the Nazi-tainted 1936 Olympics in Berlin, billed the 1972 Games as "The Happy Olympics." By the time the international sportsfest ended, it went down in the history books as "The Munich Massacre."

The turning point came in the early morning hours of Sept. 5, 1972, when eight Arab terrorists of the PLO's Black September faction slipped into the Olympic Village and attacked the quarters of the sleeping Israeli men's team.

By the end of that long Tuesday, 11 Israeli sportsmen, five terrorists and one German policeman had met a violent end.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the events, as traumatic, in its way, for a largely innocent Europe as Sept. 11, 2001, was for America, Showtime will air "The 1972 Munich Olympic Games: Bud Greenspan Remembers."

Greenspan, then an NBC radio reporter and now the dean of sports documentarians, features some of the athletic highlights and personalities, foremost, swimmer Mark Spitz and runner Dave Wottle of the United States, as well as gymnast Olga Korbut and runner Valeriy Borzov of the Soviet Union.

But most of the film centers on the tense 20 hours of Sept. 5, from 4 a.m., when the terrorists slipped into the Olympic Village, to midnight and the final minutes of the tragic climax.

Some of the players and bystanders recall the emotional roller coaster of these hours.

Ankie Spitzer, the Dutch wife of Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer, tells of her desperate attempts to sort out the conflicting reports and rumors of the day.

Israeli wrestler Gad Tsobari relates how he escaped from the terrorists.

Walther Troeger, the chief negotiator with the terrorist leader, allows that "In a way, I had sympathetic feelings for the terrorists' viewpoint," if not their tactics.

German General Ulrich Wegener roundly scores the incompetence of the German rescue effort. British television reporter Gerald Seymour vividly describes the jubilation when German officials announced, erroneously, that the Israeli hostages had been freed.

Some Norwegian, Dutch and Filipino athletes had the moral courage to protest resumption of the athletic events by going home. By contrast, Avery Brundage, the American head of the International Olympic Committee, shocked even the most uninvolved by considering the massacre and the barring of the Rhodesian team, following boycott threats by African nations, as crimes of equal magnitude.

The most emotional part of the film comes toward the end, when Greenspan alternates scenes of winners' jubilation at the resumed Olympic Games with shots of somber and tear-streaked Israelis as the bodies of the victims arrive home.

Greenspan, who wrote, produced and directed the documentary, takes off some of the edge by delivering his narrative in a curiously flat, uninvolved monotone.

Though the Showtime special certainly holds the viewer's attention, it does not match the intensity or depth of "One Day in September," a documentary on the same event by Arthur Cohn and Kevin MacDonald, which won an Oscar two years ago.

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