Amateur wrestling legend Alan Rice
MINNEAPOLIS - The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich provided a break-out moment for American swimming sensation Mark Spitz, but the games of the 20th Olympiad were overshadowed by a brazen terrorist attack that left 11 Israeli athletes and coaches dead.
Americans who took part in those games were kept in the dark by a news black out in Munich, but realized something was up when the Olympics were halted temporarily.
"We wrestled for a half a day, at which time the terrorists had made their demands, which were to stop and terminate the whole Olympic games," Alan Rice of Saint Paul told KARE.
Rice coached the U.S. Greco-Roman grapplers at the 1972 Olympics. The former Gopher wrestler had competed himself in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and went on to build the most successful amateur wrestling club in the nation.
He recalls the horrific events that unfolded in Munich vividly. From his team's six-story high rise in the Olympic village, Rice could look down on the two-story dorm where the Israeli wrestlers were housed.
"We did not know exactly what was happening, but the terrorists were very brazen," Rice recalled. "They walked around their balcony. I won't say they taunted the crowd but they showed no fear, no worries about snipers."
The Palestinian group known as Black September broke into the Israeli dorm, killed two coaches and took 9 others hostage, including wrestlers, coaches and a weightlifter. Rice could see the German security forces set up a perimeter.
"We knew the Israeli wrestlers and coaches because we had competed against them at other world events."
The kidnappers and their hostages were taken by helicopter to a nearby airport, as part of negotiations with the West German government. But, in the end, the terrorists shot several of the hostages, and killed the rest by lobbing a grenade in chopper.
In the coming days the world would see a solemn memorial service in the Olympic Stadium, but Coach Rice is still haunted by what he heard in private conversations.
"As I mingled with the coaches of the other countries they were saying, 'Why are you Americans making such a fuss about this? A few people getting killed is nothing. We sweep up more bodies every morning in our streets of our city'," Rice said.
"And I'm talking about cities all over the world. It stunned me to learn that not everyone placed the same value on the lives of those athletes."
The Israeli athletes all returned home. And Mark Spitz, the American swimmer, was sent back to the U.S. out of fear he'd be targeted because of he was Jewish. The three surviving terrorists were held by the West German government, but later traded for a hijacked German airliner.
The Munich games did resume, but Rice's wrestlers had a hard time shaking off the tragedy that had unfolded around them.
"Our athletes who were interrupted in the competition really never recovered as a team. It was just very difficult for our kids to handle," Rice remarked.
One of those "kids" was Jay Robinson, the national amateur champion from Oklahoma State. He would go on to head a highly successful Gophers wrestling program.
But the Olympic games were changed forever, especially when it came to security precautions.
"When I participated in my first Olympic games in 1956, in Melbourne, there was a wonderful air of freedom, as athletes could go anywhere they wanted to and the Olympic Village was open to the public," Rice explained.
"After Munich every Olympics' been under terrific security control. At times parents had a hard time even getting through to see their children who are competing."
At age 83 Rice remains involved in promoting the Olympics and amateur wrestling. The training center at Augsburg College in Minneapolis is named for Rice and his late wife Gloria.
(Copyright 2012 KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)