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Excerpt: Roone

In his posthumous memoir, the former president of ABC Sports and ABC News recalls the tragic 1972 day when Palestinian terrorists took the Israeli Olympic team hostage.

By Roone Arledge - May 23, 2003

Coverage Tuesday, September 5, ended at 4 a.m., Munich time, on Wednesday, September 6. As I tumbled into bed that night, men who'd been concealed in the ravine outside the broadcast center were making their way through the Olympic Village to number 31 Connollystrasse, headquarters of the Israeli team. Faces blackened by shoe polish, automatic weapons and grenades slung to their sides, they were members of Black September, a militant splinter group of the Palestinian al Fatah.

Shortly after 4:30—that is, less than 10 minutes after I'd been less than 50 yards away from them—the terrorists entered the building. In the ensuing melee, a handful of Israelis managed to escape, two—a coach and a trainer—were cut down trying to resist, and nine others, mostly members of the wrestling squad, were taken hostage, including David Berger, a Columbia Law School graduate from Shaker Heights, Ohio.

A cleaning woman who heard shots notified authorities, and within half an hour, battalions of police were cordoning off the Olympic Village. Several of the arriving officers went to the Israeli building, where a terrorist dropped a note from a window demanding the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners, along with Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, leaders of Germany's infamous Baader-Meinhof Gang. If they weren't freed by 9 a.m., the note said, hostages would begin to be shot. To show they meant business, the terrorists brought a mutilated, near-naked corpse to the balcony and flung it at the policemen's feet.

The first ABC Sports executive to learn what had happened was European engineering-operations director Jacques Lesgards, who arrived at the tech bungalow at 7 a.m. to begin readying the day's coverage. It was to be a light schedule. No track and field events were on, and Jim McKay was taking the day off—his first in four months. Jacques would be working as always, though. He was Mr. Able-to-Do-Anything, including get credentials for every Olympics, even a photo ID, for his "assistant," Bertrand—a 21-inch stuffed rabbit that went everywhere with him.

At the door, Jacques was met by Jean Adami, an ABC telephone operator who'd picked up a mangled version of the takeover.

"Something terrible is going on," she choked out. "They say a Russian has been killed in the Olympic Village and a shot went through the German television people's cafeteria."

Lesgards calmed her down and gave a walkie-talkie to Dave McCabe, an American living in Munich who'd been hired as an assistant. Go to the Village, he ordered; find out what's happening. McCabe radioed in the truth a few minutes later, and Lesgards had Adami start to alert staff while he prepared the dispatch of a mobile "flash unit," a small van with one or two cameras that we'd decided to bring along—"Just in case of the unexpected," as I'd put it to Jacques. By the time the van was ready, though, police had sealed off the Village to the press. Lesgards spotted an ice-cream truck parked near the press center. What could seem more innocent? Three hundred deutschemarks got the flash unit plastered with signs advertising cold delights, and the cops waved it through the gate.

The AP wire, meanwhile, was reporting the killing of one, possibly two, Israeli athletes. Jacques ripped the copy from the wire machine and called the Sheraton barbershop, where Marvin Bader, ABC's Olympics logistics chief since Innsbruck, was having his daily shampoo. Marvin tore the towels from his neck and ran to his car. Jacques had already broken down the door to his office and was passing out credentials and high-powered Telefunken walkie-talkies when Marvin arrived.

"We need bodies," Lesgards yelled. "Start making calls."

Marvin dialed John Wilcox, one of our producers. "Find your crews," he said. "Get them over here." Then he called my suite, where my daughter Susie answered and dutifully relayed my instructions not to disturb me.

"Your father's gonna want this call," Marvin said. "Wake him."

"This better be good," I yawned, coming on the line.

"It's the worst fucking thing you can imagine," he replied.

Marvin told me as much as he knew, and what had been geared up thus far. I told him to find McKay first thing. I wanted Jim to host. [McKay was in Munich to cover track and field and gymnastics.] And then Howard Cosell and Peter Jennings [who was then an ABC News Middle East correspondent on loan to Sports for the Olympics], and to get them into the Village.

"How about Schenkel?" Marvin asked.

"I'll talk to Chris," I said. [Chris Schenkel was the main ABC Sports host for the Olympics.] "And one more thing, Marvin. Have Jacques call New York and book as many satellite hours as we can get."

I was putting on my pants when the phone rang again, Jacques saying we could have "the bird" starting at 1 p.m. I said I'd be over in twenty minutes, then called ABC chairman Leonard Goldenson in his hotel suite, where he'd been laid low by a high fever the day before. He gasped when I told him about the Israelis.

"I'd like to stay live till this thing's over," I said. "I'll need the network."

"You got it," he said.

I walked to the window and looked out in the direction of the Olympic Village, so peaceful just a few hours before. Now blue-light-flashing police cars were streaming toward it.

At the Broadcast Center, Marvin greeted me with the news that the Germans had talked the terrorists into extending their deadline until eleven in order to give Golda Meir's government in Jerusalem time to consider their demands. The Germans, I knew, were just stalling; Israel never gave in to terrorists, and with Dachau nine miles up the road, it sure wouldn't here. I told Don Ohlmeyer to move two of the four studio cameras onto a pedestrian walkway just outside the broadcast center, where they'd have a straight shot at 31 Connollystrasse, then reviewed our deployments with Jacques and Geoff Mason.

Jim Flood of production services had sneaked walkie-talkies into the Village and was rendezvousing with Cosell and Jennings at the Plaza of Nations, a couple of hundred yards from where the Israelis were being held. Marvin's secretary, Gladys Deist, had told the head of the graphic arts department to start phonying up credentials, and was in the process of buying or borrowing all the Olympic uniforms she could get her hands on. Gary Slaughter, another American living in Munich hired as a temp, was carrying film and supplies in and out of the Village posing as a member of the U.S. track team. Gary had a good disguise: He was black, looked like an athlete, and his credentials—acquired while working with the U.S. runners prior to the Games—were the real thing. Dave McCabe, whose face was a map of Ireland, was having a tougher time; the only uniform he could find was from Pakistan.

"Anyone get hold of McKay?" I asked.

"We sent his driver over to the Sheraton to tell him he's on standby," Geoff said. "But that was more than an hour ago. I expected to hear from him by now."

A production assistant waved one of the console phones. "For you, Geoff. It's McKay."

"Tell him he's gonna anchor," I said, "and to get over here."

Jim turned up shortly. He'd taken a sauna and an icy shower and had just slipped on yellow swimming trunks for a dip in the Sheraton's pool when he'd seen a phone and, on impulse, had called in.

"Glad you did," I said. "You may have a long day coming up."

Actually, I doubted that. The hostage taking seemed like a bank holdup gone bad, and with Germany's image to the world now at stake, I figured the Germans would have the situation quickly under control. So I'd told Schenkel before coming over. Take it easy, I'd said to him on the phone, you'll be on in prime time, same as always.

As our reports came in, though, I started to wonder. Once again, the terrorists had pushed back their deadline, to 1 p.m. If Israel didn't accede to their demands by then, they vowed to publicly execute two hostages "so the whole world can see." It was now approaching 12:30, and while there had been no public announcement from Jerusalem, rumors were spreading that Meir and her cabinet had voted to hold fast.

Our preparations were in place. The long lenses of the cameras on the rise brought the third-floor balcony of the Israeli quarters so close, I could almost count the buttons on the safari jacket of an Arab in a white hat—the terrorists' leader, I guessed—patrolling back and forth. In addition, we had the use of two cameras—one belonging to us, the other to German television—stationed on top of the 950-foot television tower in the middle of the Olympic complex. From there, they could peer down on anything that might happen on the roof of 31 Connollystrasse and the surrounding buildings. Cosell and Jennings were also in position. Howard, who'd gotten past security by stripping off his yellow ABC Sports blazer and claiming to be a Puma shoe salesman, was near an underpass that separated the Italian and Burmese buildings, across the street from the Israeli quarters, while Peter had charmed his way into one of the upper stories of the Italian building, where he'd hidden in a bathroom when the police swept the Village for reporters. And now he had a clear view of 31 Connollystrasse, as well as the street where German negotiators had been doing their talking all morning. He was also the only one among us who, thanks to his being stationed in Beirut, had detailed knowledge of the terrorist groups.

John Wilcox had the best vantage point of all. After being roused by Bader, he'd met up with Willi Schaeffler, our Bavarian-born film-crew supervisor, and, in another life, head coach of the U.S. Alpine ski team. John had donned Willi's ski uniform, filled an athletic bag with camera equipment and a walkie-talkie, and gained entrance to the Burmese building by telling the guard he was an American boxer on the way to see his coach. He'd then gone to the balcony of an unlocked third-floor apartment. Directly across from him on another balcony not 50 feet away, a Black September terrorist cradling an AK-47 puffed on a cigarette. John had tiptoed back inside without being seen, and ever since had been radioing in reports that gave new meaning to "up close and personal."

The only question now was whether we would open coverage with a shot of two executions. I watched the clock tick down. Then Jim was on. I heard no shots. But I would be in his ear for the next 14 hours. The terrorists, convinced by the Germans that their demands were about to be met (in fact, Israel had rejected any prisoner release more than an hour before), had pushed back the deadline yet again. Zero hour now was 3 p.m.

Two more hours of waiting. Every producing instinct in me shrieked to fill the time with studio interviews and background reports, but I remembered that certain Sunday morning in November 1963 when Lee Harvey Oswald was being led out in the basement of the Dallas jail and ABC wasn't there.

"Stay on the balcony," I instructed. "And don't leave it."

Jim Spence, who'd started as a production assistant with Scherick and was now my vice president of planning and administration, came in, saying that at the volleyball arena next door, the match between Germany and Japan was still going strong. I had all but forgotten about the Games. I assumed they'd been suspended.

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"I just watched a few minutes of it myself," Jim said. "Gotta be 3,000 Germans in there, going nuts."

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. For 81-year-old Avery Brundage, who was taking his long overdue retirement at the conclusion of the Games, the Olympics superseded all—certainly a couple of dead Jews.

Meanwhile, Howard was calling in other odd happenings. Though the press was still barred from the Village, kids were scrambling over the security fence and hunting for athletes' autographs. A good number of the athletes themselves had turned out to watch the proceedings, and some of them were lazing and sunbathing outside. Sightseers were gathering and wurst mit sauerkraut vendors were doing a brisk business. ABC commerce went on as well. Marty Starger, head of the Entertainment division, had someone call to ask if I'd be attending the cocktail reception for advertisers that night!

I conveyed regrets.

The day slowly settled into a strange routine. Jim described events on the monitor while eating popcorn. Reports drifted in. The Germans, who lacked a rescue squad of their own, had turned down an offer from the Israelis to send in the world's most experienced. Brundage had told security officials that, as a Chicago native, he was expert on criminal matters and advised the use of the Windy City PD's instant knockout gas. (The Germans checked; no such gas existed.) After an expression of public outrage from Golda Meir, Brundage finally agreed to suspend competition—though not until late in the afternoon and only for 24 hours, retroactive to noon. There would be a morning memorial service at the Olympic Stadium, but the Games would resume afterward. Teams from Arab countries were heading home. Worried he'd be a target, Mark Spitz, the Games's most prominent Jew, had left already, with three German bodyguards.

I passed each new scrap into Jim's earpiece, following the pattern we'd developed over many programs: phrases, not sentences; soft, not loud; encouragement, not alarm.

Inwardly, though, I'd begun to be alarmed. The 3 o'clock deadline had passed, and there'd been no shots but also no announcement of a deal. I told Marvin Bader, who'd made many well-placed friends during the nearly three years he'd been in Munich, to work his sources. He called a contact in the Olympic press office. The Germans had promised something to get the deadline moved to 5 o'clock, but he couldn't find out what. He made another call, to a Lufthansa ticket agent he knew out at Reim, Munich's main airport. There was no sign that the terrorists were about to be flown out.

An hour and a half dragged by. Peter was relating the history of Black September on the air; how it had acquired its name (from the month, in 1970, when King Hussein drove Yassir Arafat's guerillas from Jordan); the number and location of previous attacks. The "commandos," in Peter's judgment, were unlikely to shed more blood.

I kept watching the monitor and the clock. At 4:50, ten minutes before the latest deadline, I saw movement on the roofs of the buildings around the Israeli quarters. Men in track suits were creeping across them. They weren't athletes; athletes don't carry sniper rifles. At 5:10, other men appeared, also in track suits, crawling toward the ventilator shafts of 31 Connollystrasse. They had short-barreled automatic weapons, the kind that are used for close, interior combat.

Jim narrated the action: "One of the terrorists is at the door of the balcony ... a balcony not too unlike the one Martin Luther King Jr. walked on and met his death.... His head is sticking out. You might wonder, why doesn't a sniper take off that head right now? Well, presumably his colleagues are inside and they would execute their hostages if that was done. Therein lies the problem....

"There you see an athlete holding a canvas bag in which is obviously a machine gun. He's not an athlete, he's a policeman. And the bulletproof vest quite apparent there in the stiff-appearing front he has. There you see a gun being removed from its bag....

"There's that head at the door again. It's become such a terribly tantalizing symbol.... What's going on inside that head? In that mind?

"A man on the roof in a red athletic suit. We now see just the tip of his head, he seems to be inching forward. See the arrow? We're placing that arrow superimposed in our studio over the live picture. It's just a little bit to the left of the point of that arrow. That man in the red athletic suit has a gun with him. It would appear that some sort of operation is under way very, very slowly and delicately."

Howard reported in: "More cars pulling up beneath the underpass ... police getting out ... submachine guns and pistols plainly visible."

Then Wilcox: "They can shoot the Arab guard dead, at will. He's an open target."

Then Peter: "I have a strong feeling this is going to turn out badly."

I heard a commotion in the back of the control room and turned around to see Geoff Mason arguing with a couple of German police.

"Offenzie," they were shouting, gesturing at the tower camera monitor, which was showing officers getting into firing positions on the roofs. Geoff, who'd picked up some pidgin German in his many Munich trips, was gesturing back and arguing. Suddenly, one of the cops stuck a submachine gun at Geoff 's chest.

"Offen-zie!" he shouted.

The dispute was whether the terrorists inside the village could watch on television everything that was going on around them. I'd repeatedly asked that question myself and had been reassured that they couldn't. The Germans didn't care: they wanted the tower camera turned off altogether. In the end, after laborious negotiation, we reached a compromise: The tower camera could stay on but the feed to Europe was shut down.

Meanwhile, the police on the rooftops froze in their places, as if awaiting instructions. Marvin got word of a new deadline: 6 p.m. At a quarter of, New York called. I listened, stunned, then whispered to Jim.

"We seem to have a technical problem," he told our audience imperturbably. "It looks like from now we're going to lose the satellite that is carrying these electronic pictures to you in your homes in the United States of this live, tense atmosphere. We will, of course, be recording whatever happens, and Peter Jennings and I will continue our commentary on ABC radio. This is Jim McKay in Munich, Germany, returning you to Lem Tucker in New York."

The unbelievable had just happened. All day long, it turned out, CBS had been pleading to share our Munich feed, and all day long an ABC News deskman had been turning them down. I'd long since sent back word that of course we had to give it to them—it was a breaking news story of national importance. But the deskman, unbeknownst to us, had held his ground: Why should we give up our exclusivity? Now, when we needed to be live most, CBS was paying us back by using their pre-booked satellite time to transmit ... the tape of a day-old British soccer game!

The minute I found out about it, I overruled the desk and we gave CBS our feed, but in the interim, I held my breath against the worst. What if it were Jack Ruby time all over again? Then, moments before it seemed that the police were about to storm the building, the Germans told the terrorists that two helicopters would be provided to transport them and their hostages to Fürstenfeldbruck, an out-of-the-way NATO air base, where a Lufthansa 727 would be waiting to fly them to the country of their choosing.

We were back on the "bird," when, a few minutes after 10 p.m., the terrorists herded the bound and blindfolded Israelis into a bus for the drive to the helicopter landing site on the far side of Olympic Village. Our flash unit caught the choppers as they rose into the air and turned in our direction, at the Broadcast Center. For once, I wanted to see history through more than a camera, and I ran outside to where I could hear the sirens, see the flashing lights, and watch them pass overhead, two, dark, terror-filled, insectlike shapes beating into the unknown.

New York was waiting for me in the control room. Time for the local evening news was coming up in the east, they said, and all our affiliates were screaming to go on the air with their biggest money earner. We had no cameras at Fürstenfeldbruck, of course, and we were only filling. The affiliates wanted the network back. If there was word during the next hour, we could break in.

I had Geoff radio Howard that he could take a break and tell Peter to grab a quick shower, then come to the studio to sit in with Jim, who'd now been on the air for ten hours—swimsuit still under his pants. As I took off my glasses to rub my eyes, Chris Schenkel turned up.

God almighty. I'd simply forgotten about him. With everything that had been going on, I hadn't spoken to him all day.

"Is there room for me?" he said.

I knew I should say no, but I couldn't bring myself to.

"Of course there is," I lied. "I was just going to call. I want you in with Jim when we go back on."

He knew I was lying, and I knew he knew, and in my discomfort I pleaded need of a men's room. I ducked out into the corridor, and there—to my absolute astonishment—I bumped into a lone man who was pacing back and forth. I'd seen his craggy face a thousand times before, but never so anguished. But what made the moment unalterably incredible was that here, in the heart of Germany, when the whole Olympic Village was like an armed camp, he had no security with him, no guards, no entourage of any sort.

"It must be a terrible day for your country," I said to him.

"It's a terrible day for the world," Willi Brandt, the chancellor of Germany, replied.

True to my métier, I got him to promise us an interview in the morning, after which I wished him good luck and returned to the control room to await developments. At 11:31, the Reuters machine rang five times—stop-press, flash.

"ALL ISRAELI HOSTAGES HAVE BEEN FREED."

No details, just that.

I hesitated. I wanted to call New York, but I wanted confirmation first. Jim, meanwhile, was taping an interview with Konrad Ahlers, spokesman for the West German government.

"As far as we can now see," Ahlers said, "the police action was perfect. Of course, it is an unfortunate interruption of the Olympic Games, but if all comes out as we hope it will come out or has come out, I think it will be forgotten after a few weeks."

Not long thereafter, though, the AP issued a more ominous report. It quoted an Olympic spokesman as saying that a gun battle had erupted between police and terrorists during a rescue attempt at the airport. Three of the terrorists were dead, another had committed suicide, and several others had escaped. A policeman had also been killed, and three others were wounded. The fate of the hostages was unknown, but the spokesman said, "We are afraid that the information given out so far is too optimistic."

I called New York immediately and said we needed air.

Jim opened with the latest:

"The word we get from the airport is that quote 'All hell has broken loose out there,' that there is still shooting going on. There was a report of a burning helicopter. But it all seems to be confusion. Nothing is nailed down. We have no idea what has happened to the hostages."

Jennings arrived, then Lou Cioffi, one of ABC News's key European correspondents, who happened to have been on vacation in southern Germany. I'd been told Cioffi had gone to Fürstenfeldbruck, but I hadn't heard from him all night.

"I thought you were at the airport," I said to him.

"I was. But I couldn't get near what was going on."

"Why not?"

"They've got the whole place cordoned off. The German military. I heard automatic-weapons fire, then an explosion—it was one of the helicopters—and you could see a column of white smoke."

"Is there still fighting going on?"

"That's what I heard on the radio, coming in. The roads are clogged. Everyone and their brother and sister is going out there."

"Why are you here?" I asked.

"I thought you'd want me on the air," he said.

For nearly two hours, mind you, I'd been trying to find out what was happening at Fürstenfeldbruck, and the ABC News correspondent who was there not only hadn't bothered to call in, he'd left. My face went a shade pinker, and I started picking at my shirt, as if looking for lint. My opinion of News had just gone through the floor.

"Okay," I said with measured softness. "You go on with Peter at the next station ID."

The phone buzzed, Marvin Bader saying there was going to be a press conference at Olympic headquarters. The time wasn't set but he was going over, and he'd radio in if he picked up anything.

Howard materialized, fresh from Marty Starger's cocktail party.

"I want to go on," he shouted, busting in on all of us. "Got to be part of this story. Put me on, Arledge, I'm the only one who can tell it."

He leaned into my face. Four silver bullets minimum, I figured. Maybe five.

"Dirty bastards," he intoned. "They already killed six million of us. What's a few more?"

"No, Howard," I said. "We're in the middle of it. There's no place for you."

"C'mon!" he insisted raucously. "Put me on the air! Gotta get on!"

"No, Howard," I repeated, escorting him toward the door. "Trust me. You'll be the first to thank me in the morning."

Typical Cosell. I'd just saved his ass—it would have been a disaster if he'd gone on the air—but years later, he still brought the subject up, with enormous resentment toward me for having deprived him of his moment.

On the other hand, he did leave.

An hour went by with nothing from Marvin, and our people on the air were reduced to thumb sucking. What would Israel do to retaliate? How come Duane Bobick, America's Great White Hope, had lost to the Cuban, Teofilo Stevenson, in the morning's heavyweight finals?

If we didn't hear something soon, volleyball analysis would be next.

New York called again. They hadn't run a commercial all day, and unless we had more than guesses about what had happened at the airport, they were pulling the plug at2:30 a.m., Munich time.

That was 17minutes away.

"Lean on Bader," I told Geoff Mason. "Tell him he's gotta find out now."

The console phone rang five minutes later; it was Marvin. He'd just seen his friend Otto Kentsch, assistant to the chief Olympics spokesman, coming out of a meeting, eyes watery. Kentsch wouldn't go on the record, but he told him: The hostages were dead. All of them.

I found myself suddenly faced with the oldest dilemma of the news producer. If I put the story on right now, we'd have a worldwide scoop. But what if, by some long chance, Kentsch was wrong and the whole world heard ABC blow it?

I decided to wait for confirmation. Better right than first. I had what I needed to hold the network, though, and I wanted Jim to prepare our listeners.

"Looks very dark for hostages," I whispered into his earpiece. "Announcement soon. Don't get their hopes up."

We kept waiting for word. Fifteen minutes ... 30 ... 45. At Olympic headquarters, they were reviewing the day for the media in half-hour increments, halting between each one for French, then English translation. German thoroughness, God almighty!

Finally, at 3:17 a.m., Reuters removed all our doubts.

"FLASH! ALL ISRAELI HOSTAGES SEIZED BY ARAB GUERRILLAS KILLED."

We could go with it.

"Official," I whispered to Jim. "All hostages dead."

He turned to look straight into the camera. For the first time that day, he appeared truly tired.

"I've just gotten the final word," he said. "When I was a kid, my father used to say our greatest hopes and worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears were realized tonight...." He paused. Then, "They're all gone."

It was said that a billion people around the world watched the telecast of the memorial service the next morning. Flags flew at half staff (except those of the Arab countries), the Munich Philharmonic played funereal Beethoven, and after Avery Brundage disgraced himself by talking about everything except the murdered athletes, men in yarmulkes thanked Germans for trying to save Jewish lives.

I kept one eye on the service, the other on a documentary segment Don Ohlmeyer was putting together on the events at 31 Connollystrasse. ABC News hadn't wanted it ("From Sports?" they said, further corroborating exactly what I thought of them), so that night, on our own time, we would jam all the commercials together in front and in back and run the segment ourselves without interruption.

The Games went on for another four days, melodrama in every one. When they were over, the network called to say that the broadcasts had done well. I learned how well after I came home. Each week we'd been on, 49 of 50 top-rated segments on television were the Olympics—a dominance never attained by any series of programs on any network. More than half of all the households in America had watched at least some of the coverage. ABC, which had sold every commercial second at a premium price, would post the first profit in its history. And the televising of 14 hours of tragedy—not by News, mind you, but by Sports—would bring a total of 29 Emmys. "The achievement," The New York Times wrote, "carries a special significance in the world of American television, as another milestone in the emergence of a full-fledged third network force."

But maybe best of all was a telegram that had come in shortly after we signed off, that unforgettable marathon night. Jim McKay had shown it to me.

"You made us all proud," it read.

And it was signed "Walter Cronkite."

Roone Arledge, the president of ABC Sports from 1968 to 1986 and the president of ABC News from 1977 to 1998, died on December 5, 2002. This is excerpted from Roone: A Memoir, by Roone Arledge. Copyright © 2003 by the Estate of Roone Arledge and published by HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpt used with permission HarperCollins. You can buy Roone at Amazon.com.



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