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Terrorism destroyed idealism, medal hopes Israel's Rot still copes with '72 aftermath


TEL AVIV, Israel -- Esther Rot's dreams died with an early-morning knock on the door Sept. 5, 1972.

It was the swimmer next door in the Olympic dorm. There was some kind of trouble. The woman looked scared.

Groggy from sleep, Rot's mind stuck on the story of two Americans who had overslept their Olympic events. She shuddered. Was she late for her hurdles race?

No, she was told. This was serious. Men with guns. Masked men. Something about hostages. Somebody had been killed.

Twenty years ago, Esther Rot awoke from dreams of Olympic victories to a nightmare of reality. Palestinian terrorists had slipped into the Olympic Village in Munich, West Germany, to take Israeli athletes hostage.

It was an extraordinary act played out live for the world: Television cameras turned from the sports fields toward the Israeli men's dorm. They showed hooded terrorists strutting with automatic weapons in front of their bowed and bound captives.

The Munich drama ended with 17 dead: 11 from the Israeli Olympic team, one West German policeman, five Palestinian terrorists.

For Esther Rot, it ended a chance of winning an Olympic medal. And it ended her youthful faith.

"After the attack, my whole positive view of the world crashed," said Rot, now a physical education teacher at a junior high school near Tel Aviv.

"Before I went, I had the ideal of the Olympics, the brotherhood of the Olympics, but they smashed my dream. For me, there is no ideal behind the Olympics anymore."

The terrorist attack at the Munich Games brought many changes; security was never again as casual at international sporting events. In Israel, successive generations of athletes are reminded of the tragedy.

"Usually, after one, two or three years, you forget about it. But not in this case. We don't let it disappear," said Shmuel Lalkin, who was then, as now, head of the Israel Sports Federation. He was in a separate room in Munich when the terrorists attacked, and was not captured.

Nearly every sports club office has a picture of the slain athletes hanging on the wall. Every year, there are commemorations in Israel and in Munich. The International Olympic Committee, trying to avoid politics, will not sanction an official commemoration, but the Israeli delegation has a low-key ceremony.

"We've done it for 20 years," said Lalkin. "We remind people every year that this happened, to keep the memory of the victims alive."

Esther Rot was 19 when she went to Munich. She came as a country-cousin to the other finely trained competitors. She had no one to run against in Israel. No one supervised her regimen. She trained alone, running only two or three times a week.

But she was fast. She entered the 100-meter -- on a lark, and almost became a finalist. She ran the 110-meter hurdles, and her time in the semifinals was the best in Munich.

Her team began to dream she might bring home Israel's first Olympic medal.

"The feeling of the team was one medal was enough. It would have been as if the whole team succeeded," she said. The night of Sept. 4, two days before her final, the team went to see a play, "Fiddler on the Roof." Afterward, her teammates lifted her in a chair "as though they were celebrating the victory beforehand," she said.

"My coach was beaming with joy. He was in euphoria, and really expressed his feelings. He said how happy he was, and said he was waiting for all his dreams to come true."

Twenty-four hours later, the coach, Amitzur Shapira, was dead.

The terrorist attack was tragically easy, by today's standards. One Palestinian, part of a group called Black September, got a job at the Olympic Village. He learned where the Israelis would stay.

Two others brought suitcases stuffed with grenades and automatic weapons through the airport in Bonn, the West German capital. In those days before luggage X-ray screening, a security agent simply asked to open one bag. Three of their five suitcases were filled with weapons; he picked one with women's underwear.

The West Germans in 1972 wanted to avoid comparisons with the 1936 Berlin Olympics under Hitler, and security was deliberately casual. Guards were told to be friendly and unarmed. At 4 a.m. Sept. 5, security guards saw six men in warm-up clothes climb over the fence of the Olympic Village with bulky bags, but assumed they were athletes sneaking back after curfew.

The terrorists killed two Israelis as they broke into the dorm, and seized nine others. Throughout the long day, they demanded the release of 200 Arab prisoners from jail in Israel. Athletes and reporters watched the negotiations from higher buildings around the dorm.

The Israeli government refused the demand. At 10 p.m., the Palestinians marched their hostages out of the dorm into two waiting helicopters that were to take them to a military airport. The teammates were bound with rope, tied together, their heads blindfolded and bowed, as the terrorists paraded brashly in the open.

"That picture didn't move from my eyes for years," said Shlomit Nir-Toor, the Israeli swimmer who had awakened Esther Rot.

"After the attack, when we were back home, I had such bad dreams for a year. I would always be running, and terrorists with masks were chasing me."

The helicopters arrived at the airport to a bloody finish. West German police opened fire when several Palestinians walked onto the tarmac. In the fierce gunfire, a helicopter with four hostages was set afire by a grenade, and the five hostages in the other helicopter were shot to death. Five terrorists and a West German policeman were killed.

The Olympic Games recessed for a day and then continued, a decision that embittered some.

Lalkin said he agreed with the decision to not let terrorists cancel the Games. But he cannot help saying: "I wonder what would have happened if it were 11 athletes from Washington, or Tennessee, or France or England. I think it was easier to decide because it was 11 Jews."

Israel took its revenge. On Sept. 8, two dozen aircraft bombed Palestinian bases in Syria and Lebanon, killing between 30 and 66 Palestinians. The Israeli cabinet authorized assassinations of the massacre's alleged planners.

Last month, Palestinian intelligence chief Atef Bseiso was slain in Paris. The Israelis quickly claimed he had been one of the last xTC three living planners of the 1972 Olympic massacre, though they denied they killed him. They said, in effect, the account had long since been closed.

For Esther Rot, the aftermath was one of trying to reassemble her life. Her coach had been close, "like a father to me," she said. She stopped training, postponed her marriage, could not bring herself to go to the track.

But Lalkin urged all of the surviving athletes to go on.

"He said we should show that the terrorists could not break Israel," she said. She began running again, with her fiance coaching, and then entered competitions.

She won a medal in South Africa, then swept three gold medals in the 1974 Asian Games. Alone among the Munich athletes who survived, she entered the 1976 Montreal Olympics. She came in sixth in the hurdles, the first female Olympic finalist from Israel.

"I was no longer naive. I knew that power and money pull the strings, and the Olympics no longer held an ideal for me," she said.

"But I had a goal. I went to Montreal with the specific purpose of finishing an unfinished job. And I did it. I felt I did my best."

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