BBC takes on ’72 Munich Massacre with radio ballad special

Jez Lowe’s song ‘Did Not Compete,’ was inspired by the struggle of sports results official Ulricht Kaiser to categorize the murdered Israeli athletes in his summary of the Games.

July 3, 2012 22:01

JEZ LOWE 370. (photo credit: Courtesy of Vince Hunt )


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For Vince Hunt, the most chilling moment of the project was walking out on the balcony of the infamous Munich apartment.

Hunt, a veteran producer and journalist with the BBC in London, was describing the feeling of standing on the spot where a masked Palestinian terrorist sporting a Kalashnikov rifle stood during the horrifying abduction and murder of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games.

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“It’s just awful how stark the surroundings were where that drama played out. And it’s a matter of only 150 yards or so from the place where athletes like Olga Korbut and Mark Spitz achieved worldwide glory,” said the 49-year-old Hunt this week from his home in Manchester.

The balcony is an image that has been seared into the collective consciousness of a generation, and it’s just one of the moments Hunt and his staff brought back to life putting together The Munich Massacre, part of a six-episode radio series called The Ballad of the Games that he’s prepared for BBC Radio 2 ahead of this summer’s London games.

Focusing on events and themes from Olympic history – like the 1936 Games, an overview of Olympic history from Olympia to London 2012, and a segment on Olympic boycotts, politics and controversy, the episodes, which started airing this week, consist of numerous taped interviews by eyewitnesses and commentators that are interspersed with specially-written topical songs by some of Britain’s most accomplished folk singers.

The Munich Massacre, scheduled to be broadcast on July 16, took Hunt and the series’ producer Kellie While and executive producer John Leonard on a year-and-half-long hunt from Munich, London, Frankfurt and Berlin to Tel Aviv and Ramallah to interview principals in the tragedy like Walter Troeger, the mayor of the Munich Olympic Village; Tali Slavin, sister of murdered Israeli wrestler Mark Slavin; Ankie Spitzer, wife of murdered fencer Andre; Scottish sports writer Doug Gillon who was covering his first Olympics; and president of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, Jjibril Rajoub.

“The idea of our radio ballads series is to get the voice out of the people who may have been submerged, to reconstruct the events and get people who were close to those involved,” said Hunt. “And you can [feel] here how fresh and close to the surface it still is 40 years later. When I was talking to Tali Slavin and Ankie Spitzer, we were all in tears. For me, as a reporter, sitting there and looking into their eyes and listening to their stories was a very moving experience.”

The still-raw emotional edge also affected the group of songwriters and performers who were given the interviews and asked to come up with original material to accompany the interviews.

The heartfelt results touch on many aspects of the 1972 massacre.

Steve Tilston’s “Black September” charts the rise of the Palestinian terror group responsible for the attack, Chris Wood’s powerful closing number “Masterpiece,” Julie Matthews’ “From Hades to Hell,” and Jez Lowe’s “Did Not Compete,” inspired by a comment from Hunt’s interview with Munich ’72 sports results official Ulricht Kaiser, look at the athletes who were gunned down in their prime.

“I had a great deal of help with research on the German side. I contacted a writer named Chris Young whose book Munich – Making of Modern Germany dealt in great detail about the preparations of the Games,” said Hunt.

“He helped me set up many interviews, including one with Kaiser, who said that one of the great tragedies involved the athletic loss for the Israeli athletes who went there to compete.

‘As the official in charge, I had to put something next to their names in the record book, I couldn’t leave their names blank,’ he said. And he explained that he came up with the phrase ‘Did not compete.’ As we left the interview, Chris and I looked at each other and said, ‘well, that’s a song, isn’t it?’” HUNT ALREADY had experience with the concept of radio ballads, having produced the BBC’s first series in 2006 – addressing issues like the decline of the steel and shipbuilding industries, 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland and the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS. For the Ballad of the Games, he employed the same formula of keeping the songwriters disassociated from the information gathering process and providing them with the interviews of themes from which they could build their songs.

“All of our artists have a strong grounding in the narrative storytelling tradition, and they knew exactly what to do,” said Hunt. “Jez Lowe listened to the Kaiser interview and put ‘Did Not Compete’ together with a kind of Yiddish musical notation reflective of the heritage. And Chris Wood, who wrote the closing song, ‘Masterpiece,’ is a very gifted wordsmith and recounts the unfolding of the whole drama beautifully.

“Because there’s no narrator in the show, the story has to tell itself and the songs are almost like boulders bumping into each other and using their momentum to move the next one along. The song subject matter overlaps and the narrative is pushed along by the songs acting as a bridge.

It’s quite a complicated process.”

Some of the material came naturally though, like the story of the slain 18- year-old athlete Slavin. As soon as Hunt sat down with his sister Tali, he knew that their story would be a centerpiece of the show.

“You get a hunch that there’s something more there, a door that you just need to push through,” he said. “And Mark’s story was just the kind that caused us to backtrack and hone in on – he was tipped for an Olympic medal, he was a Russian Jew who was going to compete for Russia but decided instead to go to Israel – he had only been in the country a few months. And on the exact day he should have been competing, he was sitting handcuffed and blindfolded.”

Delving into the aftermath of the Munich massacre brought many old wounds to the surface for those interviewed, one of which was the ongoing refusal of the International Olympic Committee to institute a minute of silence for the victims of Munich.

After hearing the testimony of Spitzer and Slavin, and talking to Olympic officials, Hunt expressed regret that the small nod to the memories of those slain has not been adopted.

“It’s not our program’s place to campaign or get involved in the politics of it, but to look at what was clearly an attack on innocent people – as Ankie Spitzer said, they weren’t accidental tourists or bystanders,” said Hunt.

“These people went to the Olympics to take part in them and they likely would have won medals. And there hasn’t been a moment of observance about their athleticism since the day after the attack.

“I’ve been attending Manchester City soccer matches for decades, and I’ve observed many moments of silence for sportsmen I never heard of. The whole world knows who these athletes are. It just takes a minute and then their families can rest in peace. The IOC evidently has a problem with that, and I can’t help but wonder what that problem is.”

Hunt, who was nine during the 1972 Olympics, vividly recalls the unfolding of the tragedy, including TV shots of the apartment balcony he revisited during the production of the show.

“It was a ‘Kennedy’ moment for anyone who was watching, wasn’t it?” he asked. “We really loved the idea of doing this ballad series about the Olympics. In sports, all life is there – the heartbreak, the determination, overcoming obstacles. But with Munich, it’s something different – it’s unfinished business.”

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