Five rings and a star

Munich, 5th September 1972
Another prank. That, at least, is what Shaul Ladany concludes as he is awoken on the morning of Tuesday 5th September 1972, a day that would forever change the face of the Olympic Games. Zelig Stroch had always enjoyed playing practical jokes on his teammates. This time, he was trying to convince them that there was a terrorist attack under way. Shaul’s legs are stiff and aching from the 50 kilometres he put them through on the Sunday and he’s groggy from having stayed up until past 3am going over newspaper articles about the race. While he was busy cutting and sticking the clippings into his book, the clock was counting down towards the moment when a group of terrorists from the Black September organisation would burst through the door to the adjacent unit. At the time, however, at least as far as Shaul was concerned, it was an entirely unremarkable night in Unit 2 in Connollystrasse 31 in the Munich Olympic Village. Certainly his pre-sleep routine is the same as ever: off come the glasses that he wears through every waking moment—including during his races—the ones that give him the air of a professor, even in mid-stride. The resemblance is serendipitous—Shaul does indeed hold a position at Tel Aviv University—but that confers neither privilege nor advantage in the battle for a podium finish at the Olympic Games. At the age of 36, Ladany is either old for an athlete or young for a lecturer, depending on the observer. Two different souls living in the same body. Exhausted. As the body enters its fourth decade, fatigue affects you in new ways. Race walking could take a serious toll—there was no question about that—but for Ladany, the real cause was deeper: the months of training and the weeks at a time spent away from Shoshana, his wife, and their year-old daughter, Danit. Only a few more days stand between him and the closing ceremony of the games, after which he can finally go home and give them the time and devotion they deserve.
But now he finds himself awake earlier than expected, and it is clear that whatever is happening, it is not a prank. At 4:30am, eight Palestinian terrorists break into Units 1 and 3 and take nine hostages—among them athletes, coaches and support staff from the Israeli delegation. Two people have already been shot. When Shaul asks his roommates what’s going on, they take him to the window and point to a blood stain on the asphalt below. The blood belongs to Moshe Weinberg, the wrestling coach and the first victim. It all seems too much to take in. The night before, Shaul had given his alarm clock to Muni—as Weinberg was known to everyone—so that the wrestling coach could take Mark Slavin to the weigh-in ahead of his match. Mark, who had moved to Israel only four months before the Games and who was still only 18 years old, was among the hostages. The other victim is the weightlifter Yossef Romano, who is left to die on the floor in front of his captured teammates.