Munich, 5 September 1972

05/09/2012

Mike Breckon: eyewitness to the event that changed the Olympics forever


Mike Breckon. Image: Paul Fillingham

Mike Breckon. Image: Paul Fillingham

On 5 September 1972, two weeks into the Munich Olympics, members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September kidnapped and later murdered eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team - witnessed by Mike Breckon, Yorkshire-born manager of the Canadian cycling team, who was based in the opposite apartment. He now lives in Nottingham, and speaks for the first time of what he saw.

How did someone from the UK end up running cycling in Canada?
Cycling was seen as an immigrant sport in Canada, outside of Quebec. I was lucky; I’d spent three years trying to make it as a pro in France, which helped. I got involved with the Canadian federation, always seemed to be volunteering for stuff, and soon became the director of the Canadian Cycling Association. When Montreal was awarded the 1976 Games in 1970, all the sporting bodies had to pull their fingers out, so I created a plan for a proper national team. So instead of just selecting a bunch of guys to go to a race somewhere twice a year, we started to model ourselves on what was beginning to happen in Europe. By 1972 we had a national team; sponsorship, the right equipment, and the resources to send riders to Europe for training. All this was still voluntary work, and it meant I was never at home. If I wasn’t working on my real job with Air Canada and travelling the world, I was off at weekends to watch a selection race for the national team, which could be over 6,000 miles away.

What was it like to actually be part of an Olympic team? What was the opening ceremony like?
The moment we walked into the stadium, all 300 of us, and the announcer said "Canada" and the crowd of 80,000 people were all cheering because they already knew we were the next Olympic host...Wow.  After of the work, all of the years, all of the planning, sweat, toil and problems...it’s something that you can never forget.

As a naturalised North American citizen who had spent time in Europe, were you aware of the political climate at the time?  
No. In those days things were different. We all went to bed one night, and the next day it was a different world. There hadn’t really been any serious terrorist threats until then.

How close were you, physically, to the Israeli team?
The Canadian cycling team's quarters were in a small square setting. The Olympic village was built to become apartments afterwards, which affected the design. It was a lovely kind of square, quite close to the village. The fence - where the terrorists got in - was only 20 or 30 yards from where we were.  Across the other side of the square opposite us were the apartments where the Israeli wrestlers and weightlifters stayed. They were nice guys, and we got on. They used to laugh when they saw us training, because they had everything they needed in the gym and we’d be going out and doing 60 to 70-mile training rides.


It was actually members of the Canadian team who unwittingly helped the terrorists to get in, wasn't it?
This has only just come out, but all of us on the Canadian team knew. The terrorists came over the fence at about 4am, helped by some Canadian athletes who’d already finished their competition and were taking a short cut back from having a few beers and watching an ice hockey game in the Canadian press office.  The identity of the team members only came out a month or so ago, when a journalist had managed to track them down. Apparently they completely broke down, like it was a confessional. One guy said that he'd borne that stigma for forty years and had not been able to talk about it. But who would have thought someone would invade the village? They just thought they were athletes returning to their camp and dodging curfew like them.

So when did you realise that something had happened?
We had a Canadian national team meeting that day at eight o’clock in the morning. As I stepped out the door, I immediately knew that something was wrong and the hair on the back of my head stood up. I know that sounds dramatic, but it did. But I carried on and walked across the square. When I got to the corner, right beside where the Israeli apartments were, a big strapping guy in a black suit with a rifle appeared and said; "Get back!"

Was he a security guy?
I have absolutely no idea. Then he reached out, grabbed me by the tracksuit top and pulled me behind the post. And I looked up, and there was the image that the whole world saw: The bloke in the black balaclava. I just about wet myself and scuttled off to the team meeting and asked what the hell was going on. But nobody knew; it had started about 4am in the morning, and by this time the village was in shutdown. The police were there, the authorities were there, but nobody really knew what was going on. So we had this short, sharp meeting and the overall team manager said; "I suggest you guys get back to your teams and we’ll take it from there". When I got back, the others were just waking up.

What did you say to them?
I said; "You can’t go out for breakfast". I didn’t know what to tell them. Fortunately cyclists tend to eat a lot, so we had lots of bananas and fruit bars and energy drinks in the apartment. And then gradually the news started to trickle in. We had TV and radio, but that was in German. We were able to get ABC, the American channel - because they were the host international network for the Games. So we essentially just kinda sat there all day.

Did nobody contact you?
At some point in the afternoon, probably about 2 or 3 o’clock, we got a call. It was from a Canadian radio station who had used its initiative, found the Olympic village telephone operation, and got put through. So I heard this booming Canadian voice saying, "Hi! This is Chel Jones" - or whoever - "from CKAC from Saskatoon in Saskatchewan!" and they were live on air, doing a phone-in show.

What were they saying? Were they sympathetic and supportive?
No. It was awful. Behind the back of our apartments was some concrete footpaths, so I had got the lads on their bikes to give them some exercise and help take the pressure off. It was like being in the eye of the hurricane - you're just there, you have no idea what’s going on, and then you get all of those people in Saskatchewan telling us what’s happening, and that they were disgusted with our behaviour.

What do you think they expected you to do?
I don’t know - go out and fight the terrorists? They thought it was a disgrace that while these poor men were dying we were riding our bikes out in the back garden, as it were. But by this time, I’d just seen the dead body of Moshe Weinberg, the Israeli wrestling manager, near the car that we used to take our lads out in. But obviously, the citizens of Saskatoon knew better than I did. So I just pulled out the phone cable and wouldn’t speak to anyone else.

Didn't anybody think to check on you?
No, because they were extremely concerned that if the terrorists saw any movement of people, they'd assume they were bringing sharpshooters dressed as Canadian cyclists or whatever and kill everyone else.  It was fourteen hours before we came out.

And the next day, after eleven Israelis were murdered...
...the next day they had a memorial service at the Olympic Stadium. I left it to the lads to decide what they wanted to do; they all came and we all sat in the centre of the track. As you can imagine, it was pretty...uh, look at my goosebumps. The music was provided by the Munich Philharmonic; the Funeral March by Beethoven. And you’re sitting there thinking, this is a German tribute to Jewish people, and it still makes me cry to think of it. And at the end of the service they said the Games would continue, and the flags were run back up their poles, and it was the cycling road race the next day.

What was it like to return to work, as it were?
Well, the amazing thing was - and this has never been mentioned anywhere before - there was a protest at the start line, less than forty eight hours after the massacre. Started by one of the Irish cycling federations, because of the other Irish federation being in the same road race. And the race started half an hour late. Then the Games finished two days later, and we came home.

Considering the emotional turmoil you and the rest of the team went through, what kind of reception was there?
There wasn’t any. I went back to work, people said "that must have been rough", I put a report into a small Canadian cycling newspaper, and that was it. Incredible, really, when you consider the way in which we respond to events like 9/11. I was on the organising group for the Montreal Olympics, and then did commentary for CBC as a commentator. Then I returned back to England and became the Marketing Manager at Raleigh.

What about the team? Was there counselling or therapy sessions afterwards?
No. There was none of that group-hugging, and I’m not being sarcastic. It didn’t happen in those days. And I have no idea, to this day, what effect it had on the other members of the team. I’ve never discussed it with them, ever. We’ve never spoken about it. We just lived it.

Did your experience prey upon your mind as time went on?
No. I totally blocked it out until the Spielberg film Munich came out in 2005 and I thought, I’ve got to go and see that. To lay some ghosts. But there were no Canadians in the film at all. I was in London on business and went to the Odeon in Leicester Square, which is huge. It happened to be the last day it was on, so I sat right in the front row in the middle of the balcony entirely alone, shouting "that’s a load of bollocks". That was my kinda, whatever the shrinks would call it, facing up to it.

How do you feel about the Olympics now?
I was twelve when we last had the Games in London, and I was totally caught up with the whole Olympic thing, which has stayed with me all my life. I was out recently to watch the torch pass through at Newark. I think the whole Olympic movement - its concept and principles - is something fabulous that means a lot to me personally. To be able to have been involved and to have been able to take a team to the Olympic Games...I still get teary about it.

The memorial plaque outside the apartment where the Israeli team were staying
 

Mike Breckon is currently working on a project with the National Byway Trust to create a 4,000 mile leisure cycle route round Britain which avoids major roads
 

 

 

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