Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Munich Heroes

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1972.)

TO FEEL fully engaged with a spectator sporting event, you need to take it personally. You need to have a rooting interest in certain athletes. You need to think you know them, even when you’ve met only in passing, if at all.

I took the Munich Olympics more personally than any other because I knew more of the athletes. All but two of them, though, were Americans.

The exceptions came from teams very different from each other, from either side of the great Muslim-Jewish divide. Their stories personalize the events with which Munich would forever be identified.

Mohamed Gammoudi had American Reg Harris as a coach, and Reg knew Runner’s World writer Janet Newman. He asked if she would like to interview the Tunisian, and Janet let me tag along.

“Where are we meeting?” I asked her. “In the Village,” she said. “Don’t ask me how we get in without credentials, but Reg said we would make it.”

Olympic Village wasn’t the fortress it appeared to be from the outside. Getting inside was easy, too easy as it would turn out. We simply pretended to be athletes and walked through the gates unchallenged.

The athletes’ quarters looked like unfinished college dorms. Four bedrooms clustered around a common living room.

We knocked, but no one heard us over the Arab music. The door was ajar so we walked inside, startling the athlete listening to a cassette player.

We asked about Gammoudi. He motioned outside and pumped his arms running-style, then said, “Training.”

Harris returned first. We would learn that this Peace Corps volunteer planned most of Gammoudi’s training but that the country’s sports bigwigs wouldn’t let their top runner – gold medalist in the Mexico City 5000, silver and bronze in the last two 10,000s – say that a foreigner coached him.

Gammoudi arrived. His bright eyes and boyish smile, set in a round face, gave him the look of someone much younger than his 34 years. He shook hands with us, excused himself for a quick shower, then became a gracious interviewee – even as questions passed from English to French to his native Arabic and back again.

After giving us a full hour of his time, Gammoudi walked us to the door and apologized for not speaking our language. In that hour he’d said nothing about winning the 10,000 or breaking a world record.

Yet Harris had overheard a Tunisian coach telling Tunisian reporters, who’d barged into the room uninvited during our session, “Don’t worry. He says he will win and will probably beat the record.”

Reg Harris shook his head and said, “This is the kind of thing Mohamed has to deal with all the time. The press will report this now as if he himself said it.”

SHAUL LADANY was a second-hand acquaintance of mine. I cheered for him because his fans did.

A row of Israelis seated behind me had little to celebrate until Ladany reached the track to finish his 20K walk. They knew his story and shared some of it with us.

As a child he was swept up with his family and shipped to the Nazis’ Bergen-Belsen prison camp. He would have died there if American Jews hadn’t bought his release with a ransom payment.

Ladany grew up in the U.S., earning a Ph.D. there while learning to race-walk. He once held the world 50-mile record, so he belonged in the Olympics. But in Germany?

“I don’t say I have to hate Germans,” he told reporters before his race here. “Of course not the younger generation, but I have no special sympathy for the older generation who have been accused of what happened in the Nazi period.”

On his race day, each time a walker emerged from a tunnel onto the track the question went up and down the row behind me: “Ladany?” Finally their man appeared, and they cheered as if he were winning.

In a way he already had won. Floodlights gleamed off his bald head, and at age 36 he looked like a middle-aged accountant hurrying to catch a bus. Ladany walked so upright that he almost bent backward.

He later told reporters how he felt on this victory lap of sorts: “Arrogant because of what the Germans did to me, proud because I am a Jew.”

DURING THE off-day from track events invaders broke into the Israeli compound where Shaul Ladany was housed in Olympic Village. Eleven athletes and coaches from his Israeli team died that day. Ladany was spared, but scarred again when Jews became targets in Germany.

Mohamed Gammoudi didn’t complete his medal set in the 10,000 by taking the gold (to go with his silver from Tokyo and bronze from Mexico City). Lasse Viren fell in midrace, taking down Gammoudi with him. The Finn got up and won, in world-record time, while the Tunisian didn’t continue.

Gammoudi, along with all Arabic-speaking Muslims, was then drawn into events not of their making. After the terrorists with agendas other than athletic did their dirty work, many athletes from Arab countries were sent home early. The Tunisians chose to stay.

Gammoudi took the silver medal, behind Viren, in the 5000. By then the seats once occupied by fans from Israel sat empty.

Photo: “Arrogant and proud” Shaul Ladany race-walks at the Olympics where his fellow Israelis became targets.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]

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