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