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."
Being on the air that day, McKay remembers, was a constant battle to find the truth. There was a report at one point that all the hostages had walked to freedom from the helicopter and that the terrorists had been killed. McKay didn't put it on the air because he couldn't confirm it.
McKay said that during such moments he summoned skills honed during his reporting days on the Baltimore Evening Sun. "It doesn't basically matter whether you're reporting news or sports or a disaster," he said. "The technique is the same."
In the end, the hostages were killed as they sat in the helicopters on the airport runway. (Five of the terrorists were also killed on the runway. Two were later killed by Israeli assassination squads, and one is believed to still be alive in Africa.)
McKay was in the midst of an on-air conversation with Peter Jennings and other correspondents when the deaths of the hostages finally were confirmed. Roone Arledge, the head of ABC Sports, whispered the news into McKay's earpiece.
McKay turned to the camera and said, "When I was a kid, my father used to say our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said that there were 11 hostages. Two were killed in their rooms this - excuse me - yesterday morning. Nine were killed at the airport tonight.
"They're all gone."
McKay knows he will forever be remembered for those three words, spoken with sensitivity and tenderness. The words were unscripted. He didn't know what he was going to say until he looked into the camera and started talking.
"It just seemed that was the simplest way to sum it up," he said. He had wondered how David Berger's parents, back in Shaker Heights, took the news, and he hoped he had handled it appropriately. He got his answer when he returned home.
"Shortly after the Olympics, his mother wrote me the most beautiful letter," McKay said. "I was wondering if I had handled that particular aspect sensitively, and the whole tone of her letter was that I had, and she was gracious."
He added yesterday, "What we were trying to do that day was report a news event. But I think that in reporting a news event, part of your responsibility is to communicate a little of the emotion you feel yourself."
McKay hadn't realized how focused he had been that day until he returned to his hotel, finally, to go to bed. He undressed and found he was still wearing his damp bathing suit from the morning before.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun