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Dave Marash, Former WCBS Anchor, Recalls Horrors of 1972 Munich Olympics

We’re just days away from restarting the pageantry and patriotism of the Summer Olympics. The Games of the XXX Olympiad take place in London.

This marks the 40th anniversary of the Munich Games, and the horrific events that resulted in those Olympics being called the Munich Massacre. Many from this generation got their knowledge from the 2005 Steven Spielberg film, Munich.

In a well-planned terrorist attack, eight Palestinians killed two members of the Israeli team. Nine others were held hostage. An ugly gunfight ensued leaving five terrorists dead. As for the nine remaining Israelis, ABC’s Jim McKay had the memorable, if not devastating, line: “They’re all gone.”

On radio, Dave Marash, a 30-year-old reporter, was pleased to have the Olympics assignment for WCBS Radio and the CBS Radio Network. He was filing reports on the various events in Germany and before long, Marash was covering one of the major news stories of the last 50 years.

“I had only gotten to bed about 15 minutes before the phone rang,” Marash tells FishbowlNY. “Because I had attended an event that was instrumental in the terrorist’s plan.”

That event, Marash contends, was the Soviet Union vs. Canada hockey match early on September 5.  Many Canadians, Soviets, and ice hockey fans that couldn’t get to the arena, did the next best thing. Not to miss the late-night match (that started at approximately 1 a.m. Munich time), Marash says many spectators left the Olympics Village for the Broadcast Center, sneaking back after the game. Thanks to lax security, Marash learned a short time later that the hockey match played a key role in the attack.

“Several members of the Canadian team had been surprised to see guys who were going over the fence with them who were carrying big, long, heavy gym bags,” Marash says. “And of course those were the terrorists, and the gym bags contained their weapons.”

Around 4:30 a.m., the terrorists, part of the Black September group, stormed the Israeli compound at the Olympic Village, and the crisis was starting to unfold with deadly consequences.

The bulletin crossed the wire at CBS in New York and word reached Marash’s hotel room. He quickly was in position. But, reporting the story meant some quick thinking on Marash’s part.

“I essentially broke into the Olympic Village from the non-athletes area to the athletes area,” Marash recalls. “Simply by getting into a runner’s uniform and jogging my way across, as if I were an Olympic athlete just out for a morning stretch.”

Ultimately, Marash found his way to Building 21, which housed the trapped Israelis. Information began to filter out. He could see ABC had cameras in place from an adjacent balcony. The pre-cell phone 1970s technology forced Marash to make a critical editorial decision.

“The nearest pay phone was about a block and a half away from Building 21 and had no line of sight into the quadrangle,” Marash recalls. “So that if I were to file, I would have to file blind. On the other hand, because I knew the TV cameras were already there, I knew that there would be TV coverage, and that whatever there was would be available at the press center.”

Marash scurried to the press center where he put audio to ABC’s video. Marash estimates that by 6 a.m. local time his initial report was broadcast. It was the first of many reports, as the cub reporter did yeoman work for approximately 36 consecutive hours.

Marash, the only CBS reporter covering the Olympics, provided live updates during the ordeal for the network’s top of the hour newscasts and special reports at the bottom of the hour. His duties included work for WCBS NewsRadio 88 and the other all-news CBS owned and operated stations.

“I was in the right spot at the right time,” Marash says.

Marash, a future Emmy Award winner as a correspondent for ABC’s Nightline, says he only experienced a few bouts of real emotion on the air.

“But, for the most part, you lock into professional mode, particularly on a story of this magnitude,” Marash says.

The tragic conclusion was not known until early the next morning. Before that happened, a shimmer of hope came from the German Chancellor’s office. A spokesman told the world that all of the hostages were rescued and the terrorists were either dead or in custody. However, within 30 minutes it was discovered that not one word was true.

“What possessed this guy to put out this false story is something that I have never heard explained,” Marash says.

In the midst of the tragic tumult, the Games went on, something Marash calls nothing short of a travesty.

“One of the worst judgments that I have ever personally witnessed was that of the International Olympic Committee in refusing to halt the Games until late in the afternoon of the hostage-taking day,” Marash recalls. “They insisted that the athletes should carry on as if nothing was going on.”

He calls the IOC’s decision to keep it business as usual at the various venues ”an integral part of the story.”

The man behind that decision, and the even more controversial choice of resuming the Games after a memorial service, was IOC President Avery Brundage, an American.

“[He] awarded both the Winter and the Summer Games [in 1936] to Adolf Hitler’s Germany,” Marash says.

But in 1972, this was a career-making moment for the budding reporter. During the morning, as the hostage situation continued, Marash, the only CBS on-air talent in Munich was asked to anchor a one-hour special report for CBS Television live from the track and field stadium.

Marash’s only TV experience to that point was one year as a reporter at WPIX/Channel 11.

“The idea of being on national, global television…was pretty exciting,” Marash admits.

In a bizarre turn of events, though, Marash received another call from CBS in New York.

“Mr. Marash, are you the guy with the beard?” the voice said.

Upon learning that Marash, indeed, did have a beard, which would become his signature physical trait, the caller said they would be in touch again shortly.

An hour later, Marash got yet another correspondence from headquarters.

“You’re doing a great job,” Marash was told. “We’ve decided not to do that television special. So don’t you worry about that, you just keep doing the great job that you’re doing on radio.”

As he discovered later, Richard Salant, the CBS News president, who built a bond with Marash by mentoring him and wanting to develop his career at the network, was on vacation. His number two, Gordon Manning, did not hold Marash in the same regard.

“Gordon, apparently, choked at the idea of being the first guy to approve a beard on Bill Paley‘s network,” Marash contends.

Just a couple of months later, Marash got his TV gig within CBS. He was hired by WCBS/Channel 2 as sportscaster for the 11 p.m. newscast. Thus, setting the stage for his standout partnership with Rolland Smith, anchoring from 1973 to 1978. Marash left to become one of 20/20′s ”founding correspondents.”But he was back alongside Smith at WCBS in 1981–always with his facial hair intact.

“I think that my coverage of the Olympic tragedy definitely kashered my beard,” Marash says.

Photo Credit: Michael Lutch

Audio courtesy: WCBS NewsRadio 88 Appreciation Site

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