Home Events Munich Olympics 1972 Crisis: How I became the only photographer in the...

Munich Olympics 1972 Crisis: How I became the only photographer in the village

1289
19

Munich, 1972, and I was there with a load of gear to record the games for my employer, United Newspapers. Together with my other job as chief photographer for the British Olympic Association, I was looking forward to a busy but relatively safe experience. It would be a change for me since I had spent much of the previous decade dodging bullets.

Dodging the bullets in Aden

I used to cover trouble spots, so was based out in Aden for a while covering the terrorist war (1963-67) which was very hairy. I just had to get up close and among the flying bullets. Then I went on to Northern Ireland for The Guardian as soon as all of the troubles started up there. Yet again, we photographers were the enemy of everyone, including the British Army.

As 1972 approached, The Guardian was not intending to send me or any other photographer to the Olympics. Fortunately, out of the blue, United Newspapers — for whom I had worked previously for something like ten years — asked me if I would consider re-joining as the chief photographer with a special brief to take charge of the Olympic coverage.

No more bullets, just some hard work and a big dose of sport. Perfect.

Morley’s war kit, seen here before leaving for the 1972 Olympics in Munich

The event turned out to be the most tragic in the long history of modern Olympics, the dreadful hostage taking and the subsequent massacre of athletes. But thanks to a supreme stroke luck and a bit of ingenuity, I became the only photo journalist actually inside the Israeli section of the village throughout the hostage crisis. My photographs were used all over the world. Here’s how it came about.

Leica and Leni R

Prior to the games, at the planning stage back in London, I’d been contacted by Leica — the official camera manufacturer of the event — to ask if I would like to borrow their latest equipment. They had introduced some longer lenses with the event in mind and, of course, they were keen to promote the newly announced Wunderkind, the Leica M5. At the time I felt that the new lenses did not have a sufficiently wide aperture for indoor shots on 64 ASA Kodachrome. I declined the offer — a big mistake as it turned out — and hired some Nikon gear to supplement my own Leica system.

Leni Riefenstahl at Munich, aged 70 and 36 years after her world-renowned Berlin Olympics documentary

I set out for Munich expecting the usual long hours and demanding work, although eventually I got more than I bargained for. During the first two weeks it turned out to be the best and most friendly Olympics I’d experienced thus far. Interestingly, I worked alongside, among others, the 70-year-old Leni Riefenstahl who created the first documentary reportage of an Olympic event during the 1936 Berlin games. She lived on to the age of 101 in 2003 but is perhaps better known for her notorious film of the 1935 Nüremburg Rally, Triumph des Willens.

Olga Korbut wins Gold

Low light

As usual, much of the Olympic action took place indoors in low-light situations and I was shooting Kodachrome ASA 64 action shots at 1/15s wide open on my 85mm f/1.8, just trying to catch the moments of inertia — for instance, at the middle or top of a weight lift, or just before the gymnast slipped over the high bar. I was concentrating on my job, recording the competitors and was well into the routine.

But routine was about to go out of the window. On Moonday, September 4, halfway through the games, I’d gone back to my flat very late after a typical gruelling day. The phone rang in the early hours — no mobiles in those days. It was one of the British athletes I knew well and he told me that something big was going on in the Olympic village. There were cordons and armed police everywhere. He didn’t know what was afoot but surmised it must be important and suggested I should get over there because there might be a story. And how!

Despite being just about all in with fatigue, I hotfooted it down to the village only to find it completely cordoned off. My press pass didn’t work its usual magic and the police wouldn’t even tell me what was going on.

The big climb

Intent on not being thwarted, I started to walk around the perimeter fence which, from memory, was 12 to 15 feet high. Not much I could do about that, but a little further on I found a petrol station which was right up against the fence of the village. It was only four or five yards from another of the closed and heavily guarded entrances. I decided to chance climbing up to the garage roof, tired out as I was and loaded with a very heavy bag of camera gear. From there, I reasoned, I could scale the rest of the wire fence and then worry about the drop on the other side when I got to the top.

One of Don’s photographs taken during the hostage crisis. Copyright belongs to Associated Press and this is reproduced from the Wikipedia page covering the massacre.

All this scrambling and straining took a while. Bizarrely, the police and army guards were watching my antics, despite the fact, as it subsequently became clear, that this was exactly how the terrorists had got into the village in the first place.

I managed to drop to the ground, a bit shaken up but otherwise intact. I suppose I was more intent on protecting the camera gear than anything else, but it’s clear I must have had the lucky rabbit’s foot in my pocket at the time.

Stuck between a fence and a brick wall

Then disaster struck. I was at the rear of the buildings in the village and there were no back doors. I just kept on walking around the backs of the apartments until I eventually found one rear door. I tried it and, mercifully, it was unlocked.

Inside, I found myself in a makeshift field hospital with the first of the dead and wounded being attended to. A bloodstained doctor stopped me and asked what my injuries were, but I brushed past and made a dash for the front entrance. I emerged just a few yards from a shocking sight — someone was dangling an athlete over the balcony of an apartment.

Fortunately for me, the police and army had already swept and cleared the area, so I managed to get into the building adjoining the Israeli quarters, through someone’s room, and out onto the next-door balcony. At this point I still had no real idea what was going off, but obviously it was big. I could see the German defence minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, in front of the building, trying, as I later found out, to negotiate the release of the hostages.

Dramatic events

Again, I was lucky because there was a telephone in the room and I was able to call United Newspapers in London and they soon filled me in on the dramatic events unfolding just yards from where I was sitting.

Throughout the day I kept the phone line open to London. Apart from taking pictures, I was able to give London a running commentary — dictated and typed out on a long roll of copy paper back in the office. When I eventually got back, colleagues presented me with the minute-by-minute narrative which stretched to over ten yards.

What was pretty incredible (with hindsight) is why the police didn’t try to stop me — or, even, shoot me — as I tried to climb the wire. I can only suppose they’d been told not to let anyone through the gates and no one mentioned the fence. Thankfully, I lived to tell the tale.

Subsequent criticism of the German mishandling of security arrangements for the games and the bungled response to the terror attack which resulted in the loss of so many innocent lives perhaps says it all.

During this long period, I was the only photographer inside the village and, perhaps more to the point, the only one right next door to the action. It’s all the more astounding since the police were doing hourly sweeps of all rooms in the block.

Polizei: Get out!

I was told on one occasion that I had to leave immediately. I just left the phone on and, like the good little boy I was, left the apartment but didn’t leave the building. I simply went down one floor, opened the door to another flat, dodged in to wait for the police to leave and then went back up to my original vantage point.

Right to the bitter end I sat there, snapping and reporting. But the bigger problem I faced was that I’d missed press deadlines for pictures and I had a couple of now virtually useless unprocessed films. I agreed with London that I should get out of the village somehow and hand my films over to a representative of the American agency, Associated Press. United would do a reciprocal financial deal with them. As a result, my pictures were then used in just about every newspaper around the world.

Olga Korbut. Apologies for the tight crops on this and other images — it is simply a problem of fitting the original prints into my scanner

Back to work

Following a 34-hour suspension of the games, I was straight back to work. The Olympics continue around the clock and I worked so many hours back in 1972 that I eventually passed out in the restaurant, apparently with my face buried in my dinner. I awoke a day later in a maternity ward, which had been pressed into service during the games, with a doctor standing over me and demanding to know how long I’d had a heart problem. I said I hadn’t had any problems, checked myself out and went back to work. It might have seemed like an anticlimax after the hostage taking, but it wasn’t without interest.

There were only ten British photographers covering the games; that was the UK’s maximum allocation. When the games got going again after the shootings, all of us started receiving urgent telegrams saying, “Get more pictures of Korbut”, a Russian Gymnast, although at the time none of us had a clue why.

Touresheva — capturing the moment

It transpired that, although she made little impact on us who were watching her, she had in fact become a worldwide star, including back at home. This was based on the fact she actually smiled. At the time, the Russian just didn’t do that. She won Gold medal but in games terms was totally eclipsed by her compatriot Touresheva who won several and became overall champion. But the smile won the acclaim for Korbut.

Alexeyev

Pat on the head

I never knew how much United Newspapers made out of this little adventure, but in those days it would have been a lot. When I got back to London, the directors of United very generously threw a party for me in the boardroom. But that’s about as far as it went. I got no bonus or rise. However, when it came to submitting my expense claim, it was sent back unsigned with a scrawled note: “Double it”.

Sadly, I now have very little to show for this adventure, other than a collection of cuttings and the transcript of my phone story — plus a rather nice thank-you from the Munich authorities

And why, you might ask, was it such a big mistake not to take up Leica’s generous offer of loan equipment for the games? Other photographers I know did accept but then didn’t use the cameras and lenses.

At the end of the games, Leica said there wasn’t much point taking all the stuff back to Wetzlar, so they left it with the journalists in return for a token payment. Since the M5 has always been one of my favourite M cameras, despite its short life and undeserved lukewarm reception, I would have been delighted to end up with some quality gear at a very cheap price.

At least the boss doubled my expenses.

More on Don Morley published by Macfilos

Read the full story of the Munich crisis

19 COMMENTS

  1. Don, your article is a real education. As you worked in Northern Ireland, you may be interested in a film called ‘Shooting the Darkness’ about photographers who took news picture there during ‘The Troubles’ https://twitter.com/rte/status/1090369021604782080?lang=en . You may, indeed, recognise some of the photographers in the film if you can get to see it on your side of the pond. In it one of the photographers says ” photographers don’t take sides, they take pictures”. I hope that the man who said that can attend an event related to the film which we are organising at the Gallery of Photography in Dublin, where I am on the board of directors, at the end of October. The film contains many harrowing descriptions and scenes the likes of which you will have seen in many parts of the world during your long and distinguished career. War and terrorism are difficult to capture in many ways besides just dodging bullets and bombs. I have seen documentaries where photographers like Don McCullin continuously debated in their minds why they were there and what they should capture.

    William

    • Dear William, thanks for the kind comments and I will certainly try and see if I can access the film you mention. Incidentally the only time I ever had the pleasure of visiting Dublin it was to cover the Mohamed Ali -Verses- Al Blue Lewis fight and what a story that was. Best regards, Don

  2. Cometh the hour, cometh the man! An amazing story of enormous courage and determination to get the job done. Great images captured in a terrifying situation which demands utter respect.
    I worked (in a safe sales job) in Frankfurt from mid 1973 to mid 1975 and well remember the aftermath of these events.
    Thank you Don for this inspiring account.

  3. Thank you Don, for an exceptional first hand write up of what it was like to combine reportage and press photography in one of histories moments of turmoil. Very professional then, and in your presentation here. So different now when social media provides so much of it.

  4. A very fascinating account! Climbing the fence with police watching shows why you got the photos and story and nobody else did – tremendous courage demonstrated. Your one camera on the gun stock type support sure could attract the wrong attention; even more so today’s chaotic world. Thanks for sharing your historical event and your great images.

  5. Wonderful story of a terrible moment in history. I’m stunned that the police merely watched you scale the fence! Amazing.

    You have certainly not lived a dull life!

    Many thanks for the write up and pictures.

  6. Respect : that was the first word that came to me when reading your article. I ‘ve always been stunned by the risks you photographers take to keep us informed of what goes on in the world.
    Many thanks
    Jean

  7. Dear Jean & All,

    I can only speak for myself but I always felt it was the duty of we who were present and witnessing such scenes to record and report on them regardless of whatever the personal risk to ourselves.

    That was our job, what we were there for, and as such whatever the risks they just had to be taken as a duty to alert the wider World about such as the horrors some of our fellow humans have so often inflicted on others.

    Beyond that I did often worry about at which point maybe I should put the camera down and stop taking pictures though my almost inevitable conclusion was it was not something for me to decide. My duty as said earlier was to remain unbiased and to faithfully record whatever was happening to the best of my ability.

    Having hopefully done that I was normally happy then to leave the decisions about whether to actually publish said pictures to the far wiser and more senior senior newspaper Editors back home in London, and indeed rather a lot of the shots I had taken great personal risks to get never ever were published.

    I questioned this just once, and quite rightly was told – ‘Sory old boy, but they were pretty horrific, and not really suitable for the British Breakfast table’.

    Don

    • Don
      In the film, which I referenced above, there was an incident where a photographer put down his camera at a sight that was too difficult to photograph and then 5 minutes later he saw something just as horrific. You really have to hear the photographer’s words describing the incidents and, so, I won’t say any more. You have, however, touched on the same feelings above.

      William

      • Hello again William,
        I did try to get the film but only got what I think was a trailer for it on Twitter?: Am afraid I am rather elderly now, and not on social media or very computer literate but maybe it might be repeated one day on mainstream TV over here.
        Best regards,
        Don

        • Will see if I can get a DVD for you. We will have the maker of the film in the Gallery at the end of October. I will mention your background and see what we can do to get one for you. I can send it on to you through Mike.

          William

          • Dear William,
            That would be very kind thank you. I hosted a TV series on photography during the mid 1970’s for BBC in N.Ireland but it was not broadcasted nationwide, and was also before the days of home video recorders and tapes I never even saw let alone have a record of it.
            Much later I did another program with the BBC about Royal Enfield Motorcycles and luckily I did get and still have a copy of that.
            Best wishes,
            Don. PS As yourself am also a Leica Society member, and Leica Fellowship.

  8. Hi Don,

    What an amazing account. In my service time I had often been around war correspondents, and pondered the thorny conundrum of who was dafter. Those of us armed to the teeth in a war zone, or the guys with pencils, notebooks and cameras who followed us everywhere.

    I have to say your account should be turned in to a film, after all the script outline is here.

    And my favourite image is your James Bondesque portrait. The names Morley.

    I am truly wondering now what your next article will be?

    Dave

  9. I have to agree with Jean: Respect is the first word that comes to mind. I had a stint of a couple of months as a news photographer before deciding it was not the life for me. I cannot imagine being a photographer in conflict zones and taking the risks you must have been through. The picture taking I engage in seems far too trivial in comparison.

    We must see and hear more of your career.

  10. That photo draped in Nikons looks familiar ..I’m sure we used it in ‘Practical Photography’ ..we certainly used Don Morley/Allsport photos ..I’ve an idea you wrote for us, too, as we were part of the same stable as ‘MotorCycle News’.

    Those hairy antics at Munich, though, were new to me! Congratulations on such a thrilling – and death-defying! – career!

  11. Dear David,
    The picture was taken by a fellow United Newspapers photographer for a Press handout by United after the games to publish their scoop, hence the Munich Olympics tie and Olympic stickers on all of my cameras etc.

    It then appeared in many magazines and newspapers including such as the UK Press Gazette, and yes photographic magazines etc. I also had my own monthly column for many years in the now long defunct ‘SLR Magazine’ before switching to write for EMAP’s equally long defunct ‘Camera’ magazine.

    Also (as it seems you might be a ex EMAP man yourself) I was in fact a EMAP Staff Photographer based in Peterborough for a while a great many years ago. My eldest son was born whilst we were Peterborough based and he is now nearing retirement.

    Best wishes,

    don

    • Eeh bah gum, yes I am “a ex EMAP man yourself”, as I joined ‘Practical Photography’ to replace Technical Ed Richard Hopkins when he moved down the corridor to be editor of the new acquisition, or launch, ‘Camera’ ..next door to ‘Angling Times’.. and then he handed on to Malcolm, er, can’t remember Malcolm’s second name. (How do I know all this when I’m only eighteen?)

      So you wrote for ‘Camera’ ..I knew I’d seen your name in one of our mags.

      “..My eldest son was born whilst we were Peterborough based and he is now nearing retirement..” b-b-but that can’t be! ..I worked for EMAP in Peterborough and I’m just a young stripling of, ooh, er, fifteen, as Mike will agree..

      (I used to go to Tony Stone’s picture agency to hunt for photos for ‘Practical’ ..but Allsport had its own library of – your! – terrific sports photos.)

      Congratulations yet again on all these phenomenal achievements! ..Not to mention all those motorcycling pics!

  12. Dear David,
    Thanks again for more kind comments it is actually rather nice to be remembered though I must say in remembering you have also given your age away (it must be nice to be 15 again!). Nowadays I am just a very keen amateur photographer but still own quite a large archive of my old pictures, and ocasionaly still get asked to supply shots for magazine or even film still use.
    Best wishes,
    Don

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.