My Dad, Me and the Munich Massacre
In August 1972, my father took my mother, my sister and me to the Munich Olympics, basically as a vacation. I had been a gofer for ABC Sports on some events but was not actually working the Olympics and was entering my senior year [at Fairfield College Prep in Connecticut].
The Germans were intent on making it what they called the "serene Olympics," so the security was very lax. We didn't even have credentials. We would walk in and out of the Olympic Village all the time. My father was assigned to cover gymnastics and track and field. With one day off in between, he called me up in the morning and said: "It's my day off. Why don't you come over to the hotel and we'll take a swim; we'll do some sightseeing." So I went over to his hotel [McKay and many of his ABC colleagues were staying at the Sheraton], and he had his bathing suit on and was either in the pool or the sauna, I forget which. Then he got a message to call Roone [Arledge, executive producer of ABC Sports].
Roone said, "I don't know what's happening, but there is something going on at the Olympic Village. You probably ought to get in here as soon as you possibly can." My dad put his pants over his bathing suit, which was still damp, and raced into the studio with me. It was probably a 15-minute ride. I remember there were an enormous number of sirens going off. That was unusual in Germany at that time because I think the Germans had wanted to minimize the stereotype that Germany was a police state. But there were a lot of sirens that morning, and that was the first indication that something wasn't right.
That started an incredible chain of events that ended with all of the Israeli athletes getting massacred at the airport. I was with my father, either in the control room or by his side off in the wings, for the entire day. Roone, as he often did, made a gut decision and said, "I'm going to put McKay in the chair," not certain whether he would stay in the chair or whether they would change anchors throughout the day. But my father didn't get up from that chair for 16 hours.
The entire day's coverage was live, with conflicting reports coming in. At one point, all the athletes had been rescued; at one point, they had all been killed. Ironically, as awful as that day was, and as terrible as the circumstances were, it was the one event that catapulted my father from being a relatively well-known sports commentator to a national figure. On the other end of things, even more importantly, people like the parents of Israeli weightlifter David Berger [who were watching from] Shaker Heights, Ohio, were trying to figure out if their son was dead or alive. And my father knew that.
When finally Roone said it's been confirmed, I could see it in my father's face, a combination of exhaustion and sadness and a knowledge that he had to report objectively and professionally what happened.
My father used that line from his own dad: "In life, your greatest fears and your greatest hopes are seldom realized. Our worst fears have been realized tonight …" He would use that line with me often, before big athletic events or when things didn't go as well as I would have liked them to. So it was pretty emotional for me to hear that.
He didn't realize -- and nobody realized, I think -- the impact this story would have on the American public. Terrorism was something that America just had not dealt with. The idea of masked gunmen kidnapping athletes was something that was so foreign to the consciousness. Now we are familiar with terrorism and kidnappings and bombings and massacres, but in those days it was just unheard of. So I don't think he realized how many people were watching him and what a huge, huge national event it was.
It was in the early morning when he finally left the compound. It was just about sunup. He was quiet. He was completely and totally drained, emotionally and I think physically, too. The dumpster where the terrorists had hidden was probably 20 yards from the compound, so we walked out and looked at it. We looked at the Olympic Village. We looked at the gate the terrorists had climbed over. It was a very quiet ride back to the hotel. I think he had used up all the words that he had in his brain.
We went back to the hotel and into the lobby, and the concierge said, "I have a telegram for you, Mr. McKay." It was from Walter Cronkite. It was the first feedback he had gotten from the U.S. The telegram was very simple. It said: "Jim … you were superb yesterday. The profession and the industry have reason to be proud of you. Congratulations. Walter Cronkite." Cronkite was one of my father's idols. That praise from Cronkite, from a newsman, complimenting him on a job that he had done as a news reporter -- not as a sports reporter -- was one of the most meaningful moments of his life. He carried that telegram in his briefcase until the day he died.
I think at that point he had some small recognition and knowledge that what he had done was truly extraordinary.
When he got back to his room and was getting undressed to finally get into bed, he still had his bathing suit on. That brought full circle what an extraordinary day it had been, that it had started out in the pool at the Sheraton hotel in Munich and ended up with one of the most memorable broadcasts in the history of television.
From that point, people would come up to him in airports or the market and almost never mentioned the Kentucky Derbies or the Indianapolis 500s or the U.S. Open golf events he covered. What they would mention was Munich.
And they would say, "I just want to thank you for doing an incredibly good job." A day did not go by in his life, I promise you [McKay died in 2008 at age 86], when some stranger didn't come up to him and bring up Munich. It was probably the best job he ever did on any event he covered. So to be remembered for that in an almost universally positive way meant a lot to him. But it was really difficult for him to get accolades for an event that was so horrible. He had a lot of conflicted emotions about that. People would say, "You did a great job." And he would say, "But 11 young, innocent people lost their lives that day."
BY THE NUMBERS: 1972 Olympics
- 12: Olympics: Broadcasts by McKay on CBS and ABC, from 1960 through 2002.
- 11 Flags: Ten Arab nations and the Soviet Union did not lower their flags during the memorial at Olympic Stadium. The Olympic flag and those of every other nation flew at half-mast.
- $2 Million: The meager budget for the 2,140 mostly unarmed officers who comprised the brunt of security at the Games.
- 34 Hours: How long it took before the Games resumed after the murders.
- 45 Minutes: Time it took McKay to go from his hotel pool/sauna to on the air with ABC's first broadcast of the terrorist act.
A TENSE 24 HOURS IN MUNICH
Sept. 5, 4:30 a.m.: Eight members of Palestinian terrorist group Black September enter the Olympic Village and break into Apartment 1 in the Israeli compound. They kill a weightlifter, take nine hostages and demand the release of 234 Arab prisoners held in Israeli cells.
Midday: German Interior Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Olympic Village Mayor Walter Troger are allowed into the apartment, where they find two Israelis wounded. They report there are five terrorists, not eight, who later demand transport to Cairo, Egypt.
Early Evening: German police in Olympic sweatsuits, carrying submachine guns, are dispatched to the village to await orders. The hostage-takers, hearing that on television, lean over a balcony and spot the police, who leave after terrorist leader Luttif Afif threatens to kill two hostages.
10:10 p.m.: A bus carries the hostages and gunmen to two military helicopters that transport them to a NATO airbase, where a jet awaits. The terrorists suspect a trap and sprint back to the helicopters. During an exchange of gunfire, a grenade goes off and the hostages are killed.
Sept. 6, 3:24 a.m.: Sixteen hours after going on the air, McKay confirms the deaths: "They're all gone," he says on live TV. Ten of the 11 bodies are returned to Israel in coffins draped in the Israeli flag; weightlifter David Berger's body is sent to his parents in Shaker Heights, Ohio.