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The Blackest September

This isn't going to be funny. I'm not going to make snide comments about the lack of common sense endemic among the people who put together television, I'm not going to deride the slack-jawed viewing audience. I'm going to point out that in this week of relentlessly prepackaged soft-focus Olympic coverage, we're passing a grim anniversary and there's a documentary to commemorate it that's the television equivalent of getting sucker-punched in the gut repeatedly.

For those of you who, like me, were infants during the infamous Black September massacre of the 1972 Munich Olympics, here's the lowdown: a group of Palestinian terrorists took a group of Israeli athletes hostage. Over the next twenty hours, the athletes were killed, quite brutally, due to a series of stupid blunders. Most of these blunders are dissected, in unsparing detail, in the documentary One Day in September, now showing on HBO.

It's riveting viewing. After briefly touching on the protests the IOC set off when it refused to suspend the Games during the hostage crisis, the screen explodes into the track finals, set to Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" and intercut with images of the masked terrorists standing guard with their guns. An athlete collapses in fatigue on the grass and you can't help but think of the two athletes laying dead in the compound, blocks away. It's not exactly inspiring: the medalists are grinning, and I was torn between admiring their focus and wondering how they could be so damned happy during a terrorist standoff.

Nobody associated with the Olympics comes out smelling like a rose: not the athletes who sunned themselves by a pool immediately below the scene of the crime; not the IOC, which initially refused to suspend the games in recognition of the athletes' danger; not the Americans -- who, as it turns out, were the ones who let the terrorists into the building when they were sneaking in after a night of drunken debauchery; not the Germans, who stupidly forgot that every move they made was being broadcast on international television, and thus let their quarry watch them try to stage a sneak attack on national television; not the people who clogged the road to the airport, gawking at the action and blocking the authorities who could have salvaged the final, fiery debacle on a German runway. Oh, and the Germans take it on the chin again when it's revealed that a few weeks later, they rigged a hijacking that permitted them to hand over the terrorists without much more short-term embarassment.

In a sense, the hostage siege was the beginning and the end of bona fide reality television: journalists stayed on the scene and fed coverage to the rest of the world. This was before the Internet, before CNN, and the focus of the networks simultaneously imparted the seriousness of the siege and lent it credibility on the global scale the terrorists desired. On the one hand, people were bound by the sense that the entire world was watching; on the other, the audience legitimized the notion that there was no such thing as bad television coverage. To quote ABC Sports' Jim McKay, "something has to happen."

It did. And it was ugly.

The sheer amount of blood in the hostage quarters is appalling; the screen lingers on the red walls and floors of the room where the first killings took place, coming to rest on a foul tangle of bloody restraints.

Nearly all of the images are appalling: the athletes exulting in winning races while other, equally deserving athletes lay bound and dying; the old German men giving interviews, looking equally defensive and defeated thanks to 28 years' hindsight; the crowd of reporters eagerly awaiting the next headline-grabbing development.

To quote an Israeli runner disgusted by the coverage of her countrymen's captivity, "This was not a movie. These were real people."

The few images that aren't appalling broke my heart. There are snapshots of the Israeli athletes, their faces suffused with the hopeful glow that we're used to seeing in our own Olympic athletes. They look like actual folks, not the nameless, faceless "hostages" we're all used to thinking of. Like real people, they are still mourned. There is a woman interviewed who is my age, whose father was killed before she was even born. "I have never heard his voice," she said. "I have never heard him say my name."

Until tonight, I had never heard anyone say the Israelis' names either: Yossi Romano, Andrei Schpritzer, Moshe Weinberg, Eliezer Halffin, Mark Slavin, Ze'ev Friedman, Kahat Shor, David Berger, Joseph Gottfreund, Amitsur Shapira, and Yaakov Springer. Plenty of television coverage was devoted to the terrorists -- we've all seen the snapshot of the stocking-masked terrorist. But how many of us have ever bothered to find out who the victims were?

Watch One Day in September; make friends with someone who has HBO if you don't have it. Watch this, and bear in mind that for many, the Olympics haven't been the same since the day politics trumped athletics and the world watched along on their television.


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