Munich 1972, party that turned into tragedy

LUIS AMPUERO
Last updated 14:50 11/07/2012
Herzl Romano
Reuters

IN MEMORIAL: Herzl Romano, brother of weight-lifter Joseph Romano, stands during a memorial in front of a monument commemorating the 11 Israelis, including Romano, who were killed by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 Munich Games.

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Argentine Luis Barrionuevo's memories of the 1972 Munich Games should be dominated by his first Olympic experience as a young high jumper.

Instead, what stands out was witnessing and filming part of the tragic events surrounding the assassination of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian guerrillas.

Barrionuevo, who went to his first Games in West Germany at the age of 23 full of dreams, was based a few metres from the Israeli team in the Olympic village.

The Black September commando group stormed the rooms of Israeli athletes demanding the release of more than 200 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

"I was very close. Going out of our door to the left, (we were) 40 metres from Israel's building," Barrionuevo, going to his seventh Games in London as physical trainer of the Argentine women's hockey team, recalled in an interview with Reuters.

"Our (Argentina's) building was a little higher, five floors, and Israel's was two floors. I remember that morning very well," he said at Cenard, the national high performance training centre on the edge of the Argentine capital.

"At the main door there was a barrier, we were not allowed out (that way) and finally we were through a secondary exit," he said of the place where the massacre took place and which also housed the Hong Kong and Uruguay teams.

Barrionuevo said that in the early hours of Sept. 5, 1972, the Palestinian group, disguised as athletes and carrying sports bags full of weapons and grenades, climbed the fence surrounding the complex where the competitors were sleeping.

Hours later, Barrionuevo discovered what had happened to turn the Games into a bloody tragedy.

"We weren't at all sure what was going on. It didn't make sense that we couldn't get around freely as we had been, but as the hours passed we found out there had been a kidnapping, there had been a death," he said.

INDELIBLE IMAGES

Months before the Aug. 26 start to the 1972 Games, Barrionuevo bought a cine camera without knowing the significance of footage he was going to get.

"I had been invited by what was then West Germany to train in Munich three months before the Games and the first thing I did was to buy a Super 8 movie camera, a real novelty in those days. I went everywhere with my camera," Barrionuevo said.

"That tragic morning I got up and couldn't get out of the complex, so I decided to climb to the top of Argentina's building to film a bit of what I could see. I've got footage of police or army personnel dressed as sportsmen with machine guns and long weapons crawling around the Israelis' building, presumably trying to rescue the athletes.

"I also have film of the kidnappers with nylon stockings over their heads which disfigured their faces coming out on to the balcony and watching the situation," he said.

He said he was taken aback when he saw the feature film of the tragedy.

"When I saw the film, I said to myself: 'this is similar to what I filmed' because they are really the same scenes I got on film with my Super 8 camera. It's unpublished footage."

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As the day wore on, the world learnt of the tragic news while the German government agreed to provide a getaway plane 20 kilometres from the scene for the Palestinians, who had threatened to kill two hostages an hour if their demands were not met.

The guerrillas and kidnapped athletes were flown by helicopter to the military airbase at Fuerstenfeldbruck shortly before midnight.

On arrival, the guerrillas were met with a rain of bullets and one of the Palestinians set off a grenade in the helicopter where four of the Israeli athletes were tied up.

"We understood the gravity of the situation when it was all over, three or four days later when we spoke to (family and friends) in Buenos Aires and they told us what had really happened," Barrionuevo said.

Despite the death of the 11 Israeli athletes, five guerrillas and a German police officer, the Games organisers decided against suspending the event.

"The economic power of an Olympic Games was what decided the Games should be suspended only momentarily and then continue," Barrionuevo said.

"The famous Roman circus had to carry on despite the fact there were people who had died, who were sportspeople, our colleagues, and I think if that had happened today the Games would never have carried on.

"When such things come up, I feel uncomfortable, a bit anxious because in a way I was complicit in continuing to take part."

With the London Games just around the corner, he said there would be tight security.

"I think London will be different, there will be more vigilance," said Barrionuevo, who visited London with Argentina's women's hockey team for a tournament to open the Olympic venue.

"We were in London two months ago inaugurating the hockey pitch. You can see cameras everywhere, controls will be very strict, but also hidden, so the crowds and sportsmen and women can feel comfortable and really enjoy a sporting spectacle."

Barrionuevo, physical trainer for Argentina's men's and women's hockey teams from the 1988 Seoul Games to Athens in 2004, dreams of being part of a gold medal victory with Las Leonas (lionesses) after sharing in their silver medal in Sydney in 2000 and bronze in Athens. They also won bronze in Beijing in 2008.

- Reuters

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