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Monday, August 21, 2006

Athlete recalls Munich slayings

By JOHN GUTIERREZ-MIER
STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER

FORT WORTH -- Dan Alon still remembers the roar of the crowd when he and his Israeli teammates marched into Olympic Stadium in Munich, Germany, 34 years ago.

He also remembers the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire days later, when Palestinian terrorists stormed their quarters in the Olympic Village and took several of his teammates hostage.

Eleven athletes eventually died. The events brought a brief halt to the 1972 Olympics and shocked the world.

Today, Alon travels the world, sharing his experience. He spoke recently in Fort Worth.

"Some people say that God leaves survivors so they can tell stories," he said. "I believe I am one of those survivors."

For many years, Alon never spoke about the incident, he said. That changed after the release of Munich, the film directed by Steven Spielberg that chronicles the Sept. 5, 1972, attack and Israel's covert-operations response.

Rabbi Dov Mandel, director of Chabad Lubavitch of Fort Worth, which sponsored Alon's visit, said Alon's story will benefit people, including younger generations.

"It's important for everyone, no matter what their age is, to remember what happened that day," Mandel said.

A privilege

The Olympic experience, Alon said, should have been one of the proudest moments of his life. Instead, it became one of the darkest.

In 1972, Alon was 27 and a fencer for Israel's national team. He said he was in heaven, wearing blue and white and walking into the stadium.

Those games were supposed to be special for Israel, he said. Before then, the Olympics had last been in Germany in 1936, when Adolph Hitler was in power.

Alon's mother and his father, a European champion fencer, fled to Palestine in 1938, where Alon was born. Years later, Alon became Israel's national fencing champion, qualifying for the Olympics.

"It was a big privilege for all of us," said Alon, now 61. "We arrived at the Olympic Village, and we were housed in three tiny houses with two floors. On the second floor, one of the rooms had a balcony."

Alon won a few matches in Munich, but he didn't medal.

On the evening of Sept. 4, still caught up in the Olympic experience, he and most of the team went to see Fiddler on the Roof. Then they went back to the village and fell asleep, he said.

At 4:30 a.m., members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group, broke into the village and stormed the Israeli quarters. Two people were killed there, but Alon and four others eluded the masked men.

Later, he and the others would learn that the other athletes intentionally steered the terrorists away from their building.

"We could hear the machine guns, and one coach and an athlete were shot," he said. "Bullets began to fly through the walls."

Alon said he and a roommate, a 17-year-old fencer, and three other athletes huddled in a room. They could hear the terrorists talking. Out a window, they spotted a gunman wearing a white hat.

"One of us spoke fluent German and could hear the negotiations with the terrorists," Alon said. "The terrorists were saying that the Israeli athletes would begin to be killed if their demands weren't met."

A bold plan

Alon and the others improvised a plan.

One of the athletes was a sharpshooter and had a gun. He took aim but couldn't keep the gun steady.

Instead, Alon and his roommates decided to jump from the balcony and take their chances running the short distance to the German police officers.

"We took our shoes off. It took about 15 minutes for five people," Alon recalled. "The first man took off, and someone started shooting. My turn finally came. I jumped then turned around to look at the [gunman]. He looked at me but didn't fire."

All five of those athletes escaped. Two of their teammates died at the home. Late the next day, nine more died after a botched assault by German police at the airport where the hostages and terrorists had been taken.

After the deaths, Alon and the other survivors attended a memorial service sponsored by the International Olympic Committee. The games were interrupted briefly, but they continued the following day. The Israeli team withdrew.

That didn't bother Alon. He said the games had to continue or the terrorists would have accomplished their mission.

Alon went back to their quarters and collected everyone's belongings.

"Everything was covered in blood," he said. "There were children's books and other stuff that athletes had purchased to take home. It was a sad day for me."

Alon gave up fencing but took it up again years later. He's now a businessman and fencing coach in Tel Aviv.

He said he recently spoke to children in Phoenix who were competing in a Jewish sports festival.

"Just like I was educated about the Holocaust, they need to know about what happened in Munich," he said.

DAN ALON

Age: 61

Occupation: Businessman and fencing coach

History: Member of the Israeli national team at 1972 Olympics. Many of his teammates were taken hostage and killed by the terrorists.

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