Jim McKay was swimming laps in his hotel pool on the morning of Sept. 5, 1972, when he was told he had a phone call.
"Jim," said the man on the phone, one of ABC's Olympic producers, "terrorists have broken into the Israeli team headquarters. They've killed one man and threatened to kill one every hour. We're going on the air in 45 minutes. Get on your horse."
McKay pulled on some clothes and rushed to the studio, where he went on the air and stayed on the air for 16 of the most awful hours of the modern Olympics. Terrorists had scaled the walls of the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany, killed one Israeli and taken 10 others hostage.
Breaking into regular programming to report the news, McKay told American viewers, "The Olympics of serenity have become the one thing the Germans didn't want them to be: the Olympics of terror."
The Munich Games "changed the Olympics entirely," McKay said. Today, as the Athens Olympics opens under the tightest security in the history of the Games, it is clear how very much Munich, and subsequent terrorists attacks, have changed this gathering of athletes. In Athens, there are seven security officers for every competitor, with several nations, including the United States and Israel, sending their own officers to protect their teams.
Yesterday, in a conversation on his 40-acre farm in Monkton, McKay recalled the shock of that day in Munich in 1972 and his efforts to provide clarity in the midst of a long and confusing ordeal. His steady presence and calm voice guided the nation through the first terrorist attack carried live on worldwide television.
At one point during the coverage, as a camera zoomed in on the grainy image of a hooded terrorist peeking out onto a balcony, McKay said, "This is a live shot you're looking at right now, and we're moving in now on the windows behind which, at this moment, eight or nine terrified living human beings are being held prisoner."
Felt the fear
McKay, now 82 years old, admits that through it all his stomach was churning with fear - fear that he would make a mistake on air and fear that terrorists may have entered the ABC broadcast building. He was also aware that the parents of David Berger were most likely watching him from their home in Ohio. Berger was an American weightlifter who had immigrated to Israel.
"I remember thinking," McKay says, "that his parents were watching, of course, in Shaker Heights and that I had best be careful because I would be the guy who would tell them whether their son was alive or dead, so I better be right."
The Munich Games were the first time the Olympics had returned to Germany since the Berlin Games of 1936, which the Nazis had turned into an ugly display of propaganda. Munich was supposed to be redemption. McKay remembers that the opening ceremony looked like a "garden party."
The Israeli team marched into the stadium under the Star of David and visited the site of a former concentration camp just six miles from Olympic Stadium. With such reminders of the Holocaust all around, the Germans had sought to present a peaceful and nonmilitaristic face to the world. Their security force of 2,000 officers wore uniforms that looked like lavender leisure suits, and they were unarmed. There was not a SWAT team in the entire city.
So no one was suspicious when eight Palestinian terrorists, masquerading as athletes, climbed into the Olympic Village early on the morning of Sept. 5. Athletes had been doing it all week. McKay remembers that his 19-year-old daughter and her friend had become acquainted with members of the Canadian swimming team and came and went through the Village without being challenged.
"They just walked through the security gate, never showed credentials or anything like that," McKay says. "It was a different world." Yet he is reluctant to criticize the Germans for their lax security or their woefully inadequate response to the hostage-taking. After hours of fruitless negotiations on Sept. 5, the Germans had provided a bus to take the terrorists and their hostages to three helicopters, which would shuttle them to an airport.
The Germans assumed there were just five terrorists, so they stationed five snipers at the airport. But when the terrorists boarded the bus, it was clear there were eight of them. Yet the Germans didn't send more snipers to the airport or tell them about the additional terrorists. They couldn't: The snipers did not have walkie-talkies, nor bulletproof vests or steel helmets.
"In fairness, this was something that was truly unprecedented," McKay said in his home yesterday, surrounded by his 13 Emmy awards and other mementos from 50 years of broadcasting. "People are never prepared. Our imaginations, I guess, just aren't big enough to encompass something like this happening."