Shahar Ayalon: Munich massacre changed my life

40 years ago, aged 16 and a promising runner, he was sure his future lay in sports.

July 24, 2012 07:10
2 minute read.
Fire Service Commissioner Shahar Ayalon

Fire Service Commissioner Shahar Ayalon 311. (photo credit: YAAKOV LAPPIN)


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Today, Fire and Rescue Services commissioner Shahar Ayalon is busy building his organization into a 21st-century firefighting organization.

But 40 years ago, aged 16 and a promising runner, he was sure his future lay in sports.

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Ayalon arrived at the Munich Olympics with several other young Israeli athletes, not knowing he would fly home with the coffins of 11 Israeli sportsmen slain by Palestinian terrorists.

The trauma from that event, Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post on Monday, caused him to abandon his athletic career and join the Border Police’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, paving the path for a life in the security forces and law enforcement.

“The organizers of the 1972 Olympics brought delegations of promising youths from all countries to the games, to give them an experience of the event,” Ayalon, formerly head of the Tel Aviv police district, recalled. The invitation was designed to prepare the youths to compete four years later at the Montreal Olympics.

“We went to competitions and trained with others from all over the world,” he said.

All the young Israeli athletes looked up to their adult counterparts in the Olympic delegation, from wrestlers to weightlifters to fencers.

“They were our role models.

We truly admired them,” Ayalon said, adding that the youths interacted closely with their heroes. “We gave them water on long runs and cheered them on. The connection was very strong.”

The night the terrorists attacked, Ayalon was at the Youth Olympic Village, next door to where the adult athletes were staying.

“We had uniforms with Israeli symbols and no security. We were even more vulnerable than the official delegation. But they went for the adult athletes,” he said of the terrorists. “We were woken up at night and placed under heavy security. After the hostages were killed in the helicopter the Olympics were placed on hold for 24 hours. There was a memorial in the stadium. We sat on the grass watching it,” he recalled.

Next, Ayalon said, the youth delegates boarded a flight back to Israel with 11 coffins.

“We drove with the coffins to Kiryat Shaul [a cemetery in Tel Aviv], where they were buried.”

Ayalon said the trauma stayed with him for life.

“Since that day, we, the members of the Israeli youth delegation, went our separate ways, and most of us left sports,” he told the Post. “We all kept what we felt to ourselves.

In those days, there were no psychologists for trauma.

No one talked about it very much. We didn’t return to the Montreal Olympics. Our trauma was not treated until this day, although I don’t blame anyone.”

Ayalon said the parents of the youth delegates suffered their own torment while waiting for their children to return from Germany.

“There were no cellphones or emails either,” he said.

Ayalon excelled in the 400- meter dash and the 1,500- meter middle-distance event, but after Munich he left the sporting world. He joined the Israel Police’s elite counter-terrorism unit in 1977.

“Since then I’ve been in counter-terrorism and police for 35 years,” he said.

Ten months ago Ayalon met with members of that same youth delegation at Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon near Netanya for their first reunion.

For the first time in 40 years they discussed their feelings about the terrorist attack and discovered how similarly it had affected them.

“It was a very emotional meeting,” Ayalon said.

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