One Small Voice

2009-03-20 00:00

Munich, the third largest city in Germany after Berlin and Hamburg, is emerging from another bleak European winter. Neatly dressed Bavarians scuttle to and fro, making their way to work on the trams and trains that run impeccably on time.

Still clearly visible on the horizon, amid the modern office blocks and onion-shaped church spires, is the familiar profile of the Olympic Park, created for the summer Games of 1972 … the communications tower set among the spider’s web-style canopies above the event venues, revolutionary structures of acrylic glass stabilised by metal ropes, instantly recognisable throughout the sporting world.

It is interesting how even the most fleeting glimpse of a major sporting structure can prompt a series of indelible memories, a series of images emphatically engraved on the consciousness, forever attached to the event and to the city.

So, 27 years after the last medal was awarded, a traveller wakes on the ninth floor of a Munich hotel, looks across the city, sees the Olympic Park, and his mind recalls the summer of 1972.

What images spring to mind?

Does he see Mark Spitz, the moustachioed 22-year-old American swimming superstar who won seven gold medals, became an international celebrity and promptly retired from the sport?

Does he see Valery Borzov, the pint-sized Soviet sprinter, who surprised the favoured Yanks and blazed to gold medal glory in both the 100 metre and the 200 metres sprint?

Does he see Mary Peters, the beaming girl from Ballymena in Northern Ireland, who edged past the local favourite Heide Rosendahl to win the gold medal in the women’s pentathlon?

Does he see Olga Korbut, the impish Soviet gymnast who charmed millions when she wiped a tear from her eye after a disastrous routine on the uneven bars and then recovered to win three gold medals?

The answer is “probably not”.

As the traveller looks across the city, almost three decades later, he remembers neither the athletes of the Munich Olympics nor the wonderfully joyful atmosphere of the first 10 days as the organising committee fostered a happy, relaxed mood to transform their country’s austere reputation.

He most probably recalls the events that took place early in the morning of September 5 when eight members of the Black September terrorist group scaled the two-metre chain-link fence surrounding the Athletes Village and made their way to the apartment occupied by the Israeli team.

Within 20 minutes, two athletes had been shot dead, another nine were being held hostage and the world watched on aghast as horror stained the Games. Twenty hours of demands, threats and negotiations followed until a bungled rescue attempt left 11 athletes, a German policeman and five terrorists dead.

On September 6, a memorial service was held in the Olympic stadium, attended by 80 000 people and more than 3 000 athletes. Jos Hermens, the Dutch distance runner, reflected the general mood when he said: “You give a party, and someone is killed at the party, you don’t continue the party: that’s why I’m going home.” Special measures were taken to ensure Mark Spitz, thought to be a target because he was Jewish, was swiftly evacuated from Munich and rushed back to the United States.

Many cities and countries continue to seek the honour of staging a major sporting event for the sound reason that such jamborees generate global attention, stimulating economic growth through tourism, investment and trade.

However, none of these cities should overlook the reality that with the great opportunity comes the inherent risk … the risk that something goes wrong, that something happens and steals the headlines and becomes irrevocably, forever attached to the event and to the host.

In a fast-developing high-tech world, where media reports are translated into reality across the globe in a matter of seconds, the stakes are high. In fact, the stakes could not be higher.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby and general manager of SABC sport, and is involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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