Television pioneer Roone Arledge’s exploits are legendary. Yet arguably his most daunting professional experience is less well-known: producing ABC’s coverage of the 1972 Olympic Games. In this excerpt from his memoir (published posthumously by HarperCollins), he recalls the tense situation in the control room during the hostage crisis involving Israeli athletes and Arab gunmen. In a matter of hours, the already intricate task of televising a global sporting event grew infinitely more complicated.
At 11:31, the Reuters machine rang five times — stop-press, flash.
“ALL ISRAELI HOSTAGES HAVE BEEN FREED.”
No details, just that.
I hesitated. I wanted to call New York, but I wanted confirmation first. Jim McKay, meanwhile, was taping an interview with Konrad Ahlers, spokesman for the West German government.
“As far as we can now see,” Ahlers said, “the police action was perfect. Of course, it is an unfortunate interruption of the Olympic Games, but if all comes out as we hope it will come out or has come out, I think it will be forgotten after a few weeks.”
Not long thereafter, though, the AP issued a more ominous report. It quoted an Olympic spokesman as saying a gun battle had erupted between police and terrorists during a rescue attempt at the airport. Three of the terrorists were dead, another had committed suicide and several others had escaped.
A policeman had also been killed, and three others were wounded. The fate of the hostages was unknown, but the spokesman said, “We are afraid that the information given out so far is too optimistic.”
I called New York immediately and said we needed air.
Jim opened with the latest:
“The word we get from the airport is that, quote, ‘All hell has broken loose out there,’ that there is still shooting going on. There was a report of a burning helicopter. But it all seems to be confusion. Nothing is nailed down. We have no idea what has happened to the hostages.”
Jennings arrived, then Lou Cioffi, one of ABC News’ key European correspondents, who happened to have been on vacation in southern Germany. I’d been told Cioffi had gone to Furstenfeldbruck, but I hadn’t heard from him all night.
“I thought you were at the airport,” I said to him.
“I was. But I couldn’t get near what was going on.”
“They’ve got the whole place cordoned off. The German military. I heard automatic-weapons fire, then an explosion — it was one of the helicopters — and you could see a column of white smoke.”
“Is there still fighting going on?”
“That’s what I heard on the radio, coming in. The roads are clogged. Everyone and their brother and sister is going out there.”
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“I thought you’d want me on the air,” he said.
For nearly two hours, mind you, I’d been trying to find out what was happening at Furstenfeldbruck, and the ABC News correspondent who was there not only hadn’t bothered to call in, he’d left. My face went a shade pinker, and I started picking at my shirt, as if looking for lint. My opinion of News had just gone through the floor.
“OK,” I said with measured softness. “You go on with Peter at the next station ID.”
The phone buzzed, Marvin Bader saying there was going to be a press conference at Olympic headquarters. The time wasn’t set, but he was going over, and he’d radio in if he picked up anything.
Howard Cosell materialized, fresh from Marty Starger’s cocktail party.
“I want to go on,” he shouted, busting in on all of us. “Got to be part of this story. Put me on, Arledge, I’m the only one who can tell it.”
He leaned into my face. Four Silver Bullets minimum, I figured. Maybe five.
“Dirty bastards,” he intoned. “They already killed 6 million of us. What’s a few more?”
“No, Howard,” I said. “We’re in the middle of it. There’s no place for you.”
“C’mon!” he insisted raucously. “Put me on the air! Gotta get on!”
“No, Howard,” I repeated, escorting him toward the door. “Trust me. You’ll be the first to thank me in the morning.”
Typical Cosell. I’d just saved his ass — it would have been a disaster if he’d gone on the air — but years later, he still brought the subject up, with enormous resentment toward me for having deprived him of his moment.
On the other hand, he did leave.
An hour went by with nothing from Marvin, and our people on the air were reduced to thumb-sucking. What would Israel do to retaliate? How come Duane Bobick, America’s Great White Hope, had lost to the Cuban, Teofilo Stevenson, in the morning’s heavyweight finals?
If we didn’t hear something soon, volleyball analysis would be next.
New York called again. They hadn’t run a commercial all day, and unless we had more than guesses about what had happened at the airport, they were pulling the plug at 2:30 a.m., Munich time.
That was 17 minutes away.
“Lean on Bader,” I told Geoff Mason. “Tell him he’s gotta find out now.”
The console phone rang five minutes later; it was Marvin. He’d just seen his friend Otto Kentsch, assistant to the chief Olympics spokesman, coming out of a meeting, eyes watery. Kentsch wouldn’t go on the record, but he told him: The hostages were dead. All of them.
I found myself suddenly faced with the oldest dilemma of the news producer. If I put the story on right now, we’d have a worldwide scoop. But what if, by some long chance, Kentsch was wrong and the whole world heard ABC blow it?
I decided to wait for confirmation. Better right than first. I had what I needed to hold the network, though, and I wanted Jim to prepare our listeners.
“Looks very dark for hostages,” I whispered into his earpiece. “Announcement soon. Don’t get their hopes up.”
We kept waiting for word. Fifteen minutes … 30 … 45. At Olympic headquarters, they were reviewing the day for the media in half-hour increments, halting between each one for French, then English translation. German thoroughness, God Almighty!
Finally, at 3:17 a.m., 23 hours since I’d stood in the parking lot marveling at the wonder of an Olympic night, Reuters removed all our doubts.
“FLASH! ALL ISRAELI HOSTAGES SEIZED BY ARAB GUERILLAS KILLED.”
We could go with it.
“Official,” I whispered to Jim. “All hostages dead.”
He turned to look straight into the camera. For the first time that day, he appeared truly tired.
“I’ve just gotten the final word,” he said. “When I was a kid, my father used to say our greatest hopes and worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears were realized tonight…” He paused. Then, “They’re all gone.”
(Excerpted from the book “Roone: A Memoir,” by Roone Arledge. Copyright © 2003 by the Estate of Roone Arledge. Published this month by HarperCollins Publishers Inc. Reprinted by permission.)