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Memories of Munich: ’72 Olympics cast long shadow

Award-winning correspondent Bob Dotson’s first assignment for NBC News was at the tragedy-scarred 1972 Olympics in Munich. As the Games marking the 40th anniversary of the massacre open, he looks back at his first (but not last) encounter with terrorism.
/ Source: NBC News

My first job for NBC News was at the Munich Olympics in 1972. That’s where I met legendary basketball coach Abe Lemons. He was president of the College Coaches Association that year, but told me he couldn’t get tickets to any Olympic basketball games. Instead, he scored a seat to the finals of the hammer throw.

I asked Abe: How was it? 

“Well, our seats were kinda high up,” he said with a slow grin. “How high?” “When one of those hammer guys wound up and tossed, the fellows around me all yelled down, ‘How’d he do?’ And the fans down below would turn, cup their ears, and say: ‘Huh?’”

Courtesy of Darrell Barton

I laughed. But all the laughter stopped instantly on Sept. 5, the day a terrorist group called Black September kidnapped the Israeli wrestling team.

I saw it all from the roof of a private home and did live reports for NBC Radio. After a tense standoff, the terrorists flew away from the Olympic village in a helicopter. They demanded a plane to take them out of Germany.

The woman who owned the house where I was living and working spoke English, so I asked her on air: Where did she think the helicopter was going?

The world press was saying it was headed to Riem, the international airport near Munich at that time. But Mrs. Auspitz said, “Well, that’s the other way. They’re headed toward a small airport called Fürstenfeldbruck.” She was right. We scooped everybody.  Later that night, German authorities went on television to announce that the terrorists had been killed in an ambush: The Israeli wrestling team was safe. We went to bed enjoying that storybook ending. 

Israeli team members of the Olympic Games march on the field of the Munich Olympic stadium to attend the memorial ceremony paying tribute to their countrymen in Sept. 6, 1972.- / AFP

But a few hours later, Mrs. Auspitz woke me and pointed out the window toward the Autobahn, which ran near her house.

There was a long line of hearses. Each contained the body of an Israeli Olympic wrestler. They had not been saved. They all died.

I left Germany with the conviction that terrorism could touch my life at any time. It did. Twenty-nine years later.

I was standing outside a church one block from Ground Zero on that terrible day terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center.

“The American Story with Bob Dotson” is a long-running regular feature on TODAY and other NBC News programs. This story is excerpted from Dotson’s upcoming book “American Story," which will be published in January 2013 by Viking Press.