King of the Road
By Shaul P. Ladany
384 pages; $24.95
Munich, September 4, 1972. The 15-member Israeli Olympic team accepted with pleasure the invitation of actor Shmuel Rodensky to a performance of Fiddler on the Roof. Rodensky was playing Tevye, and during the intermission, he invited them backstage where a photographer snapped a photo. The picture was the very last for most of the Israelis. Within hours, Yasser Arafat's Black September Fatah terrorist organization took 11 team members hostage. All were killed.
Premier race walker Shaul Ladany was one of four to survive. Now, for the first time in English, his autobiography, King of the Road, reveals what really happened in Munich.
Coming as it does on the heels of Aaron J. Klein's excellent Striking Back: The 1972 Munich's Olympic Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response, Ladany's book is well timed. Klein gained access to records long suppressed by both the Germans and the Mossad and directs his attention primarily to government actions. Ladany's more personal book, told as a survivor, both enhances and complements Klein's account.
Both books fault Germany's extremely lax security, apparently reflecting their desire to present the country as changed from the demeanor it presented in the "Nazi Olympics" in 1936, when the emphasis was on military might. Not only were German guards unarmed, but entry into the Olympic Village was so relaxed virtually anyone could walk in without challenge. Once inside, a free computer system enabled a visitor to access not only full biographical information on each athlete, but also offered apartment and room number where the athlete was lodged.
That was bizarre. In 1972, terrorism was rife. In May, the PLO hijacked Sabena 572, days before 26 died in the Lod Airport massacre. Yet the only security information offered was the tired advisory "to be leery of suspicious objects and not accept packages from strangers."
Ladany, who time and again contradicts official versions of events, sets the record straight about his own conduct that night, an erroneous version of which has been published so many times it's assumed to be true. Ladany never "jumped out the window" or ran - "like a goat" or any other way - to get away from the terrorists, he writes. In fact, he stayed behind to warn other Israeli personnel. Then, he and another Israeli made their way to a ground-level apartment and simply walked out the patio door. "With straight backs and confident steps we crossed the lawn and left the building behind," he writes.
Shortly thereafter, the survivors pieced together events and surmised what the terrorist's plans were: to take the hostages, then being held in another apartment, out of the village by way of the parking garage under the building. Approaching one of the feckless German police officers, he explained the likely scheme. The German officer said only that he'd pass the information on, which he apparently never did. Indeed, the hostages were driven away in two buses from the lower-level parking area. Had anyone listened to Ladany, the story of the 1972 Olympics would have read quite differently.
Fascinating as his account of the Olympic massacre is, it's only a small part of the book. Born in 1936 in Belgrade to Hungarian parents, young Ladany shuffled around Europe with his family, one step ahead of the Nazis. Scheduled to ride the Kasztner train, when that deal fell through, they were transported instead to Bergen-Belsen. Liberated in 1944, they made their way to Israel in 1948. As the only Holocaust survivor on the Israeli team, Ladany hoped the Munich Olympics would provide a healing experience. That wasn't to be.
Ladany's passion for the sport of race walking dominates his story. "All race walkers are crazy," he writes. It's hard to disagree. After one race, the entire sole of Ladany's foot peeled off "like a tongue" when he removed his shoe. In other races, the intense physical exertion caused his stomach to convulse, forcing him to pause and vomit, even as he rued every second he was wasting. Sometimes he'd finish the race, only to have his whole body go into muscle spasm, requiring him to be carried off the field. Back on his feet two days later, he'd be walking his traditional 50 miles a day, training for the next race.
King of the Road is a quintessentially Israeli book, as Ladany splices races with professional achievements and fighting Israel's wars. An industrial engineer, he speaks nine languages, has written 13 books and holds eight US patents. He also served as an officer in the IDF. One typical account: On October 5-6, 1973, Ladany set the world record for the 100-mile walk in Columbus, Missouri. After battling extreme heat followed by rain, leg pains, bloody blisters and sucking mud, he took the last lap at a sprint, setting a new world record of 19:38. Hardly pausing to shower, he hopped two planes back to Israel, and within hours found himself in the Jordan Valley, serving with the IDF in the Yom Kippur War.
Ladany holds, or has held, race walking records in Israel, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, South Africa and England. In the US, he still holds the unbroken record for the 75 km. walk - unbroken by anyone but himself, that is. He set the record in 1975, broke it himself in 1976 and again in 1977.
As packed with names, places, events and personalities as the Ladany book is, one flaw becomes apparent: It cries out for an index, or at least a partial listing of all the races and honors Ladany piled up. Ladany himself admits he has no idea how many races he's participated in, other than to say it's in the thousands. But some name and place reference, or at least a list of key races and dates, would help readers navigate Ladany's life story more easily.
Now 72, Ladany still trains in Omer, the Negev village where he lives with his wife Shosh. A daughter and grandchildren live in Modi'in. Ladany hasn't stopped winning. In May 2006 he set a new record by walking 100 miles in 21 hours and 45 minutes, fastest time ever for anyone older than 70.
"I never quit," Ladany says. "Quitters don't win. Winners don't quit. That's a rule of life."