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A gunman wears a hood over his face as he surveys the building where Palestinian militants held Israeli athletes hostage at the Munich Olympic Village on Sept. 5, 1972. The 20-hour standoff ended in a botched rescue effort at the airport. (KURT STRUMPF/Associated Press)
A gunman wears a hood over his face as he surveys the building where Palestinian militants held Israeli athletes hostage at the Munich Olympic Village on Sept. 5, 1972. The 20-hour standoff ended in a botched rescue effort at the airport. (KURT STRUMPF/Associated Press)

Spectre of Munich still haunts Olympians 40 years later Add to ...

The images have stayed with Ian Millar for 40 years. The panicky man with a hand gun shouting, “Go back, go back. Danger.” The apartment window with the curtains pulled apart, and a gun muzzle sticking out between them.

Worst of all was the sight of nine Israelis, blindfolded and bound together, being led at gunpoint onto a bus destined to take them to their deaths. It was Sept. 5, 1972, the day terrorism took root and the Olympics carried on.

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The 2012 Games are Mr. Millar’s 10th, an Olympic record, and perhaps his last. At 65, he has ridden many a mile, represented his country whenever asked and won a wealth of medals, including the Olympic silver he helped Canada claim four years ago in team jumping. But his first Olympics were in Munich, and as the debate continues over the International Olympic Committee’s decision not to include an anniversary-driven moment of silence at Friday’s opening ceremonies, Mr. Millar reflected on his memories while training with his horse north of London.

What surprised him was how little he knew then and how much the world has changed.

“Now we know they were terrorists. Back then it was a bit of a new concept,” said Mr. Millar, who witnessed how the Black September terrorist group tried to barter its Israeli hostages for the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel. “If you were screwing around with security back then, the guards would roll their eyes. It was no big deal. Today, there wouldn’t be a guy trying to climb a fence at 3 a.m. He’d know better because he’d be caught, jailed and thrown out of the Olympics – and we’d all hear about it in minutes.”

It began at roughly 4:30 a.m. outside the northwest corner of the athletes’ village. Two groups of armed terrorists, eight in all, scaled the three-metre-high chain-link fence, burst into Building 31 where 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were staying and immediately killed two of them. It quickly led to a standoff between the terrorists and police, with the hostages all being murdered in a failed rescue attempt.

Ironically, two groups of Canadian athletes had been out late watching the second game of the Canada-Russia summit hockey series in the early hours of Sept. 5. One group included water polo players David Calder and Jack Gauldie, who told the CBC in a recent television documentary they believe they helped the terrorists scale the fence to get into the village. They were not suspicious since everyone looked like an athlete trying to sneak their way home.

Swimmer Byron MacDonald, now the head coach of the University of Toronto swim team, was in the second group of Canadians at the fence unaware of Mr. Calder and the others. What he saw instead were four men climbing over the security fence into the village.

“They were wearing track suits, off-red or mauve. There were no names on the back,” Mr. MacDonald said. “We never talked to them. They hopped the fence and we did, too.”

Minutes later, Mr. MacDonald heard “bang, bang, bang.” He went out on his apartment balcony looking for fireworks. When he didn’t see anything, he went to bed. Israeli wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano had been shot dead.

About 75 minutes later, Mr. Millar was up and on his way to breakfast. He was staying in an apartment one block away from where the Israelis were staying. As he and three teammates walked around a corner, they were warned away by an agitated man, likely a plainclothes police officer, holding a gun. Mr. Millar looked up and saw a muzzle emerging from a balcony window overhead.

“In those days, who knew what a terrorist was?” he said. “We went off to ride our horses. When we came back, we saw the [Israelis] being led out of the building onto a bus. They were all bound and tied to the guy in front of them. We watched them drive away.”

Mr. MacDonald saw more once he awoke. From his balcony, he watched armed troops and tanks roll into the village not knowing what was going on. “I kept waiting for someone to yell, ‘Cut,’ like it was a movie scene,” he said. “It’s scary now. At the time, there was no reference. You didn’t realize the gravity of the situation.”

Once everyone knew what was unfolding came reports that the hostages had been freed unharmed. The joy was soon dashed by the grim reality that they had had been killed on the tarmac of a nearby NATO airfield.

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