|Wednesday, September 4
Updated: September 5, 6:26 PM ET
When sports became life and death
By Marc Connolly
ABC Sports Online
The knock came at the door shortly after 9 a.m. It was yet another beautiful late summer morning at the horse farm in Monkton, Md., where Jim and Margaret McKay have resided for decades, and their farm manager was urgently trying to contact them in the main house. It was odd, recalled Jim, but he figured perhaps it had something to do with one of the horses.
"Turn on your TV."
They were words millions of people across the country and around the world heard Sept. 11.
While others stared in horror, their minds blank as the unbelievable and unbearable sites in New York City and Washington, D.C., unfolded before their eyes, Jim McKay immediately thought back to an eerily similar day 29 years before.
It may not pack the punch of Sept. 11 to some people today. Too much time has passed. Too many people alive today weren't even born then. And there was no horrifying video of the destruction and devastation that turned the world upside down nearly 30 years ago. No graphic footage of the deaths of the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, murdered by terrorists who stormed the Olympic village in Munich on Sept. 5, 1972.
But unlike Sept. 11, Munich was not a faceless act of terrorism. Television cameras were rolling that day, too, capturing the startling images of Black September terrorists -- including that bone-chilling figure in the ski mask peering over the balcony -- who tried to leverage their Israeli captives for the release of 200 Arab guerrillas imprisoned in Israel.
"The Palestinians were secular terrorists who wanted to communicate and negotiate," said Richard H. Dekmejian, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California who has studied terrorism for 40 years. "On 9/11, there was no negotiation."
In the end, negotiations didn't matter in Munich. After a full day of watching and waiting by a worldwide television audience, the siege ended tragically during a clumsily planned rescue attempt by the German police at Furstenfeldbruck, a nearby military airbase, where the terrorists and hostages were flown by helicopter after a full day of negotiations.
McKay, who had kept the world abreast with details from ABC's remote studio in Munich, soon got the word from coordinating producer Geoffrey Mason through his earpiece. It was then that his simple, but poignant words ended a day of horror.
In some ways, it is impossible to compare anything to what happened on Sept. 11. Nevertheless, these two Earth-changing events will always be linked to one another as ultimate acts of hate and violence that caught everyone off guard.
"Nothing compares to Sept. 11, but those in Munich who had seen the terrorists in action and realized how vulnerable we were could appreciate the vulnerability," said ABC's Peter Jennings, who was covering the '72 Games and was hidden away in the Olympic Village by members of the Italian Olympic Team shortly after the crisis began.
"Munich was perhaps the fuse that started off all of the particulars for 9/11," said McKay, now 80 years old and in semi-retirement from broadcasting. "But 9/11 was pure horror. Nobody was fighting with anybody. There was nobody winning or losing. Just terrorists who considered this a victory."
In both cases, groups of terrorists used some of the world's biggest stages as political platforms.
"They both occupied the world stage, so to speak, and they were acts of political violence," Dekmejian said. "On 9/11, they went after icons of American power in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In Munich, violence took place, but there was also the possibility of an exit, of talking and working things out. What happened on 9/11 wasn't rational. It was vengeance, and it was beyond negotiations. They sacrificed themselves for a Godly mission is what they had convinced themselves."
In the way that 19 hijackers took away a nation's innocence on that September morning last year, eight Palestinian terrorists took away the purity of sports in Munich. Before Sept. 5, 1972, there was no need for strict security measures. The Olympic Games were viewed as the ultimate neutral ground for the world.
"I just remember joining old friends, and we were manipulating the weak security for all it was worth," said Kenny Moore, an American marathoner who finished fourth at the Munich Games only five days after the tragedies. "Those of us with wives were cutting passes. It was all fun, the seriousness of what potentially was going to leak through that sieve was lost on me."
Munich changed everything. Security forces have been transformed from the non-threatening, blazer-wearing guards on pseudo vacations to become the most crucial aspect of the entire Olympics operation. Now, they are trained to be prepared for every eventuality, including the once unthinkable doomsday scenario -- a plane crashing in the middle of the opening ceremonies, "full of people, full of fuel, broadcast live to a worldwide audience," as International Olympic Committee director general Francois Carrard described in the days following Sept. 11.
"I think that the sports venue is out for secular terrorist movements, like the PLO and so on. But as far as religious terrorists are concerned, any venue is a possibility with them," said Dekmejian, who admitted that he is surprised nothing has happened at the Olympics since Munich, particularly in Los Angeles (1984) and Korea (1988). "They don't want to survive at the end of the process. Of all the groups, I'm worried about the 'Lone Wolf' types, as we call them."
Those who act on their own, who do not view their own death as being an obstacle, are always going to be the unknown variables when it comes to terrorism, whether it be someone in Times Square with a bomb strapped to them or an anthrax-carrying terrorist at the U.S. Open. The Olympics, the Super Bowl and the World Cup seem impossible to penetrate due to the security, but as long as there are political motivations, sports venues always will remain a possible target.
"It's very difficult to keep the two separate, in part because events like the Olympic Games are huge platforms," Jennings said. "I was not surprised, in many respects, when (Munich) happened. It was a huge platform, and the Palestinians, prior to that, were immensely frustrated that the world was not paying attention to them. And we all know they are neither the first nor the last to use violence as a way to get on the front pages."
Munich helped strengthen security at sporting events, but the events of Sept. 11 have put security on an all-time high worldwide, no matter where the venue or who is involved.
"In the wake of 9/11, every time we come around to a public holiday or to a huge event and the government gets exacerbated about security, it's the last place to expect (an attack)," Jennings said. "I now don't expect for us to be surprised. We won't be surprised if the country is hit again."
Look Jim McKay in the eye and he'll tell you that he felt safe covering the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake this past February, just five months after Sept. 11. How could he not? There were approximately 15,000 police and military personnel used to fortify security.
"Simply because it did happen at the Olympics once means it probably won't again," McKay said. "I think that Salt Lake was at least a step forward. Virtually all nations came and competed as sportsmen, and there were no incidents during the Games. It's a huge start."
But as McKay blinked twice down at the ground and the pit in his stomach returned after viewing ABC's documentary of the Munich massacre for the first time, his normally stoic and upbeat voice disappeared for a moment as he leaned in.
"In our world, nothing is impossible."
Marc Connolly is a senior writer for ABC Sports Online. He can be reached at marc.Connolly@abc.com.