“In the afternoon I had trained with them, a day later they were dead”: Belgian Olympians look back on massacre in Munich, almost 50 years ago

The photo albums on the table have yellowed, the newspaper clippings are wrinkled, the hair has turned gray or has disappeared. Harry Van Landeghem is 74 today, Stan Bens has passed 80. “Old and worn out”, Bens grins. “Old and forgotten”, laughs Van Landeghem.

Both, they know, were not the biggest names in the 96-man Belgian team that went to the Games in Munich in August 1972. Athletes Gaston Roelandts and Puttemans, the sailor and later IOC president Jacques Rogge, decathlete and current trainer of Nafi Thiam Roger Lespagnard: their names are ringing much more today.

Stan Bens. — © Raymond Lemmens

But much happier than the two wrestlers – lutteurs, they say themselves – you didn’t find anyone in the delegation. Van Landeghem is then 24 and comes from Kruibeke. He started wrestling when he was fourteen. His club is very nicely called ‘Willing is able’ and Van Landeghem quickly grew into a Belgian top player. A top to which Constant ‘Stan’ Bens has belonged for some time. The garage owner from Deurne is 31 in 1972 and had narrowly missed a ticket for the Games in 1968. Now he’s there. They realize that they are not directly eligible for a medal in Munich. “In Western Europe we were able to stand our ground,” says Van Landeghem. “But as soon as we were up against a Russian or Bulgarian, we knew what time it was.”

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But that does not dampen the fun, show the photos that are brought up fifty years later. On a large black-and-white image we see the young Van Landeghem and Bens, together with their trainer, hanging exuberantly from a train window. Women and children are waving on the platform, smiling broadly. “That was when we left Brussels,” says Van Landeghem. “Almost the entire Belgian team went to Munich by train. That was quite an atmosphere.”

Police with white hat

The photo is full of enthusiasm, and that is exactly what the then West Germany has in mind with the Games. This is the country’s first major sporting event since the war, so Munich wants to show its best side. No soldiers in the street, everything as casual as possible. Even the police are given a playful uniform in light blue pastel shades with a white hat.

Harry VanLandeghem.

Harry VanLandeghem. — © rr

Even before the Olympic flame is lit, the Games are renamed the ‘Merry Games’. You can see it again in the photo albums that are on the table at Bens and Van Landeghem five decades later. Posing next to Gaston Roelandts with the Belgian flag, merrily strolling between the futuristic athletes’ flats, among the thousands of other athletes at the opening ceremony, on a mini golf in the Olympic village: everything looks equally relaxed. “You even had a disco in the Olympic village”, Bens says while leafing through. “And food at will, 24 hours a day. Literally everyone was welcome. Officially you needed a pass, but Harry and I had a few buddies who had come and walked straight into the Olympic village. You just walked in and out there. (sighing) They later regretted that.”

That regret sets in when in the early morning of Tuesday, September 5, eight Palestinian terrorists climb over the fence of the Olympic village. The Games are now ten days away. Two days earlier, Miel Puttemans gave Belgium a first – silver – medal in the 10,000 meters. Van Landeghem and Bens are preparing for their wrestling competition in the final week. But that changes abruptly when the Palestinians move to Block 31 on Connollystrasse. The majority of the Israeli delegation resides there.

© AFP

In their own country, Israelis and Palestinians have been living at odds for years. The Palestinians feel oppressed and that has already led to bloody attacks and hijacks. That morning, the conflict moves to the Olympic village. The heavily armed Palestinian commando of the Black September movement penetrates Block 31. In the clashes, two Israelis are quickly killed, nine others are taken hostage. If Israel does not release 234 Palestinian prisoners within hours, the command says, their lives will no longer be safe. After which, to enforce their demands, they brutally throw the body of the first victim into the street. It concerns Mosje Weinberg, the 35-year-old wrestling coach of the Israeli team and an old acquaintance of two Flemish wrestlers who are just waking up at that moment.

Stan Bens: “Normally we never got up this early. But Harry and I had been on a heavy diet for weeks to get into a lower weight category. We would be weighed at six in the morning. When I looked out the window, I immediately saw that everything was going on. Block 31 was opposite the building where we stayed. As the crow flies, maybe fifty, a hundred meters. Everywhere you saw people, police, flashing lights… I immediately said to Harry: they won’t get hold of those Israeli lutters, will they? Even so, they just weighed us. That was the weird thing. You knew something serious was going on, but in the beginning everyone was still going their own way. You are a top athlete, you have that competition in your head for four years. That doesn’t suddenly change. Besides, what exactly was going on? No one knew right away.”

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First Mark Spitz, then the hostage situation

It is the story we hear repeatedly fifty years later. Also with the Belgians. Karel Lismont will finish the Games with silver in the marathon, but he doesn’t get much from the hostage situation in the first hours. “Don’t forget: the internet, social media, none of that existed,” he explains. “We only had a TV, in German, in a common room. Now the whole world would know everything immediately, not then.”

That is also what cyclist Ludo Delcroix says. He previously just missed the bronze in the 100 kilometer team time trial and does not have to take action in the final week. “I do remember the shock,” said Delcroix. “We slept maybe a hundred meters away from there, then you’re not reassured. But otherwise life went on.”

Not just for the Belgians. While the drama is in full swing, the Games continue ‘as usual’. Unbelievable, but until well into the afternoon German TV will switch between images of the 1,000-meter canoeing, Bulgaria-Tunisia in volleyball, a press conference by swimming icon Mark Spitz and ‘live’ coverage of the bloody hostage situation. The Games will not be canceled until 4 p.m.

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Harry Van Landeghem also remembers how he just started training that day. “Although we had to be led away underground, through the garage of our block, to get out.” Like his colleague Stan Bens, he is less focused on his match. The afflicted Israelis, except for an athletics coach, are out of fencing, weightlifting and wrestling. Mark Slavin and Eliezer Halfin know them from the wrestling hall. Just like referee Gutfreund and coach Weinberg. Names that don’t say much to the rest of the Belgians. For them it is very different.

Stan Bens: “The Israeli wrestling team came to Belgium every now and then. Then they trained and fought in our room at the Melkmarkt. A day or eight. As an internship. I knew all those guys. A few years earlier I had given them a tour of the Grote Markt, showed them Brabo, and then to the Atomium.”

“They were all friendly people. Right, cool. They had been drinking coffee in my living room at home. Then we spoke half German, half English. (smiles) With Mosje Weinberg I even drank more than just coffee. He had even offered me if I would not like to train with them for a month. Everything paid, my wife and all were allowed to go to Israel. But I should have left it that way. There was already then a lot of bullshit in the Middle East. But I did hang out with them again at the Games. Monday afternoon, just before all that happened, I had trained with Mark Slavin. A sympathetic guest and a clean boy. That’s how it was among lutteurs. We got along well.”

Hand grenades at the airport

Fifty years later, Van Landeghem and Bens say that they have followed it all closely. “You saw the nervousness increase during the day”, Van Landeghem nods. “How German snipers appeared on the roof, the armored cars that arrived.” Bens nods: “There were hundreds of people looking up. We saw the rest on TV. Harry and I tried to get as close as possible, but they stopped us.”

They don’t think much about their competitions: “For two weeks I had been in the sauna with plastic bags around my body to get on my weight. I had barely eaten anything. Now the coach allowed me to go about my business in the restaurant. He also assumed that the Games were finally over.”

Van Landeghem and Bens no longer know how they followed the bloodiest night in Olympic history. Perhaps they too only learned of the fatal outcome in the morning. The last thing they remember is how after 15 hours of ultimatums, laborious negotiations and many threats, the eight hostage takers and nine remaining hostages are taken to Fürstenfeldbruck airport around 10 pm. “I can still see the helicopters rattling.”

An airplane has to take the whole party to Tunis. But it never comes to that. At the airport, in a desperate attempt to free the Israelis, a terrible clash erupts. Shots are fired, hand grenades explode, a helicopter burns out. The balance is terrible: all hostages, five Palestinians and a German agent, are killed. Bens: “I have not been good for months on end. On day one you still train with them, on day two they are dead. That didn’t work for me.”

Dirty aftertaste

Yet they too will remain in Munich. When the IOC, led by President Avery Brundage, just hours after that horrific night in a flooded Olympic stadium, his legendary phrase The Games must go on says, Van Landeghem and Bens are in the stands. “Harrowing and sad”, says Van Landeghem. “I was scared myself,” says Bens. “It was only then that I realized what had really happened.”

Bens tries to contact the remaining Israeli delegation. “But I didn’t get to it. At that time, of course, everything was very strictly secured,” he sighs. “It was then.”

The Dutch wrestler Bram Kops also trained with Slavin and Weinberg on Monday. He will leave the Games. “I still can’t believe they are no longer alive,” he laments in the Dutch press. “I can’t participate in competitions like this, can I?”

The Belgians do not follow him. Van Landeghem makes it to the third round in the featherweights the following days, Bens dies after two fights in the semi-heavyweights. They have never regretted it. “Once the competition is underway, you as an athlete are mainly concerned with that,” they say honestly.

Van Landeghem will then go to the Games as coach three more times. But for both it will always be their only Olympic participation as an athlete. Munich, they emphasize, remains a sporting highlight in their career. “But having to fight and knowing that some of your colleagues are no longer with us has left a bad aftertaste for a long time,” concludes Van Landeghem. Bens nods: “I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”

The article is in Dutch

Tags: afternoon trained day dead Belgian Olympians massacre Munich years

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