McKay recalls horror of Munich 20 years later

GRACE IN MIDST OF TRAGEDY

July 08, 1992|By Ray Frager | Ray Frager,Staff Writer

When it was over, Jim McKay was still there, sitting where he had been stationed for nearly a day. The gunfire, the explosions, the madness of terrorism that had gripped the Munich Olympics had ended.

Moshe Weinberg, Joseph Romano, Eliezer Halfin, David Berger, Mark Slavin . . . The dead of the Israeli Olympic team numbered 11, and McKay read off their names. Then, pausing -- like a catch in the throat -- he added, "All gone."

It has been nearly 20 years since that Black September, and the madness, which neither began nor ended in Munich, is still with us. And so it has fallen to others to deliver the news of bombs, hostages and hijackings. But at least they haven't had to do so against a backdrop of the Olympic rings.

Seemingly thousands of times we have seen the hockey miracle of 1980, Bob Beamon's stunning long jump, Franz Klammer's breathtaking downhill run, Greg Louganis' emotional diving triumph. Still,McKay's extraordinary grace under pressure lingers in the television memory like no other Olympic moment.

"It had this phenomenal impact on the country," McKay recalled yesterday. "Since then, almost of necessity, we've become almost inured [to terrorist attacks]."

McKay said he began to realize that impact the day after the tragedy. There was a note waiting for McKay in ABC's Olympic headquarters.

"It was from Walter Cronkite," McKay said, "and it said something like, 'You have honored yourself and your profession.' "

It was an opinion shared by others.

For example, in The Sun of Sept. 6, 1972, Judy Bachrach wrote: "What was astonishing was Jim McKay's deft handling of the unheralded, his laborious investigations into a maniacal succession of rumors and unconfirmed reports and his devotion to a task that was to span almost a full day and to render the reporter haggard but very intelligible by late evening."

McKay certainly wasn't an unknown when the Munich Games began, but he wasn't even the network's Olympic anchor. Chris Schenkel was ABC's host. However, almost as soon as the news hit that black-hooded terrorists had taken Israelis hostage in the Olympic Village, McKay took Schenkel's place.

"Roone [Arledge, then head of ABC Sports] brought me in," McKay said. "I suppose my background in straight news [McKay, a Baltimore native, once was a news reporter for The Evening Sun] had a lot to do with it."

In the initial moments of the Black September action, McKay said, the Olympics had an otherworldly quality. The competition had not been stopped.

"I thought they should have stopped the Games sooner," McKay said. "Dressage was going on, [American heavyweight boxer] Duane Bobick was getting knocked out. It was almost surreal."

The Olympics did stop, if only briefly, to mourn the dead athletes. And then, after a memorial service -- complete with International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage using the forum to decry the politics that had kept Rhodesia out of Munich -- the Games resumed after one day.

The Olympics had ended in spirit, some said, so what was the point of continuing? McKay may quibble with the timing, but he agrees withthe decision.

"If they [the athletes] went home, the terrorists would have won," said. "On the other hand, there should have been a longer period before they resumed."

The terrorists didn't win, and the Games have gone on -- most of the time, it seems, with McKay in the anchor seat. From 1976 through 1988, ABC carried six of the eight Olympics, and McKay was the network's face and voice. Familiarity has bred respect.

"Most people don't understand how the rights work and that we're under contract to one network," he said. "They expect me to be at the Olympics."

But NBC is carrying the Summer Games beginning July 25 in Barcelona, Spain, and McKay soon will leave his Monkton home and head to Muirfield, Scotland, to cover the British Open on July 16-19. He remains an astute, opinionated observer of the Olympic scene, though.

"I suppose the biggest hype is the [U.S. men's] basketball team," he said. "I find it hard to get excited about that. It'll be like the Oakland A's vs. Towson State."

McKay will agree that the Olympics have too many sports these days -- "Rhythmic gymnastics doesn't do much for me" -- but sounds unhappy that there are rumblings about downsizing the Games.

"What I'm really distressed about is that they're trying to cut back on the number of countries and the number of athletes," he said. "They'll be no more Eddie the Eagle [Edwards, the overwhelmingly novice British ski jumper] or Jamaican bobsled team."

McKay might enjoy an Eddie the Eagle because the nature of the Olympic experience is to be bittersweet. And this goes beyond the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. It can go back 20 years.

"You hate to think that a terrible day like that is the biggest boost to your career," McKay said. "You almost feel guilty about it."

Or it can go back eight years, to a city in Yugoslavia that was host to swift skiers and graceful skaters but now lies in ruin.

"Mostly, this week, I've been thinking about Sarajevo."

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