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‘A masterpiece of sensitive broadcasting’: The Munich massacre remembered

After the 50th anniversary of the Munich massacre, SJA secretary Philip Barker recalls David Coleman’s “finest hour as a broadcaster”

By PHILIP BARKER

The Munich Olympic Games, which came to a close 50 years ago, have become synonymous with an attack by terrorists which left 11 members of the Israeli team dead.

A day of commemorative events in Munich last week remembered those darkest hours, with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach present to join members of the victims’ families.

The 50th anniversary ceremony was held on September 5 at the F├╝rstenfeldbruck Air Base

A new investigation by a joint commission from Germany and Israel has been established to examine papers only recently released from government archives.

It is believed they will shed further light on how the tragedy unfolded.

“I welcome the proposal to commission experts from both countries, but their work may well bring uncomfortable truths,” Steinmeier admitted.

The 50th anniversary ceremony had taken place at F├╝rstenfeldbruck Air Base, a few yards away from where the final helicopter exploded after a firefight and a rescue attempt that went tragically wrong all those years ago.

Memorial at 31 Connollystrasse

The story of how Black September terrorists infiltrated the Olympic village in 1972 and stormed the Israeli accommodation block at 31 Connollystrasse has already been told in part.

A map on display in the Olympic village complex to this day shows where each team was accommodated in 1972.

Reporters who were there said that they were given a similar map.

Former SJA President Chris Brasher testified that “security at the Olympic village was slacker than in any other Olympic village I have ever known”.

Two Israelis were killed in the initial assault and there followed a tense siege as security forces surrounded the block where the hostages were now being held.

David Coleman (BBC TV screenshot)

As news of the attack spread, BBC commentator David Coleman was woken in the small hours to cover one of the biggest stories of any Olympic Games.

Throughout what became a tense siege that lasted most of the day, Coleman reported from a tiny studio that became nicknamed ‘the Maushaus’.

As the grim vigil continued, it was Coleman who interpreted it for television viewers.

“Coleman takes over speaking slowly because he is being fed information through the earpiece in his right ear,” Brasher related.

Paul Fox, Controller of BBC 1, “sifts the information cautiously with care and Coleman chooses his words with care,” Brasher continued.

As the helicopters containing the remaining Israeli hostages and the terrorists set off for the airfield, Coleman described their departure.

A few hours later, it was announced by West German authorities that the rescue operation had been successful.

Later, it was revealed that the reports were wrong and that all the hostages and a Munich policeman had died in a firefight at the airfield.

Within a few hours, a memorial service had been arranged at the Olympic Stadium.

Once again, the commentator was Coleman.

On a sunny morning, the orchestra played the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.

“The Olympic Games stand still, the flags in the stadium at half mast,” Coleman began.

“The citizens of Munich, the thousands of competitors and officials bewildered and appalled… this hastily conceived memorial ceremony, conceived yesterday for the two dead Israelis, but now embracing the men who died last night in the bloody chaos at Furstenfeld airport.

“Such is the confusion in this city, there are so many conflicting reports that many people in this stadium still don’t know who died and why.”

His words, measured yet emotional, were a masterpiece of sensitive broadcasting that has rarely been equalled.

Coleman was understandably drained after the strain of such a long time on air but still commentated on the remaining athletics finals and also the Closing Ceremony.

“I don’t think there’s any question that what was such a tragedy was certainly David’s finest hour as a broadcaster because he had nothing to talk about for the better part of a day and yet it made it all work,” colleague Barry Davies said.

The words Coleman spoke that week still have the power to affect.

1972 competitor Esther Roth-Shaharamov with widows Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano

This last week, there were further emotional words from Ankie Spitzer, widow of fencing coach Andre, one of those who died in the attack.

Ms Spitzer has been a vocal campaigner for restitution to the families.

“I will never stop talking about it, so that it will never, ever happen again and those who are responsible for it will pay the price,” she said.

Click here to read more reporting on the Munich massacre 50th anniversary from Philip and the Inside The Games team.

To watch an excerpt on YouTube from the BBC TV documentary ‘The Quite Remarkable David Coleman’, shown in 2014, click here.