U.S. Olympic track star was eyewitness to 1972 attack on Israeli team in Munich

by Larry Brook

The second Summer Olympics for Madeline Manning-Mims was turning out to be less of a dream and more of a nightmare.

What the track star refers to as her “hell year” included a traumatic divorce, and when she found out her two-year-old son would not be allowed to accompany her to the Olympics, she decided to withdraw, even though she was team captain. “I wasn’t ready to leave him yet” and didn’t feel she had someone who could watch him, she said, but her mother unexpectedly said she would be able to take care of him.

At the Olympics, there were numerous logistical snafus, some of which involved U.S. athletes missing their events after athletes were not notified of schedule changes. There were judging challenges and a scandal involving the end of the basketball competition, and injuries among her track and field teammates.

Then in her event, there was the race official who told them the wrong place for the finish line — several meters too early. As she slowed after passing what she thought was the finish line, by the time she happened to get to the real finish line, she had missed qualifying for the finals by two centimeters.

Not the way she anticipated defending her title and gold medal in the 800-meters from the previous Olympics, the first American woman to win that event, and it wasn’t until 2021 that another American woman would win gold in that event.

Then she tore a ligament in her leg while practicing for the 4×400 relay.

But if that were not enough, the next morning she woke up in the athletes’ village to find herself with a front-row seat to an international horror show, one which would forever stain those 1972 Games in Munich.

Just across the way, maybe 50 meters from the dorm the American women were in, was another dormitory, where the Israeli team was housed. Early in the morning, javelin thrower Kate Smith was in the hallway “screaming obscenities,” Mims wrote in her book. Smith told her that there were men in black suits everywhere, and talk about the Israeli athletes being taken hostage.

They went out onto the balcony with their teammates, and on the street below there were people in suits talking to each other. It looked like there were several snipers on rooftops.

Then on the balcony directly across from them, a man dressed in black came out and started talking to the people below.

Mims, who was in front, said “At first we did not see the gun, which was on his shoulder, but then he turned and we saw it, and we panicked.”

After a moment of stunned silence, one of the Americans “said what we were thinking,” that the guy could just mow them down if he wanted to.

“When the girls realized that we could be in danger, they turned and ran for the door,” she said. “They started screaming and hollering.”

At that point, Mims was in the back, and “all I could think was they’re making too much noise.” She figured “he’s going to get mad, and he’s already crazy,” and “what’s going to stop him from stopping us from making all that noise?”

With the shot-put athlete using her arm strength to push, everyone made it back inside without incident. Inside, they wondered if other athletes were in danger. Mims wrote, “our athletic utopia had been savagely invaded and raped.”

They found a television in the recreation hall and watched the events unfold from a place of safety.

They soon learned that early in the morning, five Palestinian terrorists, members of Black September, wore track suits and climbed the fence surrounding the athletes’ village. It was not unusual for athletes to climb the fence, and their weapons were hidden in athletic bags.

Those five met with three others in the village and used stolen keys to try and break in to the Israeli dorm. A 300-lb. wrestling referee, Yossef Gutfreund, heard them try to enter, slammed his weight against the door and yelled for others to escape.

Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano attacked the intruders and were killed, and nine hostages were taken.

The Palestinians demanded the release of 200 Arab prisoners in Israel, and safe passage out of Germany. Israel wanted to send in a special team to rescue the hostages, but Germany insisted on taking the lead.

After several hours, there was an agreement to take everyone to a NATO air base where the terrorists and hostages would be flown to Cairo. A bus arrived at the village to transport them to the helicopters that would go to the base.

“They had their hands tied and legs tied, and they were blindfolded,” Mims said. “They were shuffling toward the bus and we had been told to get out of the dormitory, so we were outside.”

Though they were told to stay back, “of course nobody stays back, we rushed to see what was going on. That was another scary period.”

The athlete’s village was on lockdown — not only could one not enter or leave, but communication was cut off. The men’s basketball team had been at a workout when the lockdown occurred, so their dorm was empty — but Mims knew they had a big-screen television there, so she and her roommate, Cheryl Toussaint, went there to watch what was happening.

While watching the coverage as the helicopters made their way to the base, Mims got up and looked out the window, and “I had this fearful emotional feeling, I began to tremble and sweat.” Toussaint told her that it was probably just all the stress catching up with her.

Moments later, shots were fired on the tarmac. A cameraman filming on the tarmac dropped to the ground and continued to roll. “News people were screaming, everything just broke loose.” The Germans had planned an ambush of the terrorists, but thought there were just five instead of eight. Mims said a terrorist with a floppy hat told another that it was a trick and “kill them all.”

One terrorist threw a grenade into one of the helicopters, killing the Israelis inside. “You could see their bodies on fire,” Mims said. Another terrorist shot the hostages in the other helicopter.

“It was the most horrible thing I could ever have imagined,” Mims said. “Even when I talk about it now, it is still very painful because I can see it.”

Black September has since been revealed to be a front name for a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, though at the time they were claimed to be independent of the PLO.

Abu Daoud was the mastermind of the operation, and in his autobiography he credits three senior officials of Fatah with assisting him. One of them is Mahmoud Abbas, the current chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

On Aug. 16, while in Germany meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Abbas was asked about an apology for the 1972 attack. He sidestepped the question by charging Israel with committing “50 massacres, 50 Holocausts” against the Palestinians.

The Games Continue

A memorial service was held the next day amid debates on whether to continue with the Games, but the declaration was made that the Games would go on.

“I still had to run,” she said. “After all this.”

Munich memorial in Ben Shemen forest, Israel

Not everyone stayed, though. She said they got Mark Spitz “out of there quick, and I think they looked for any other Jewish athletes to get out, they flew them out just in case.”

While many people were profoundly affected, she was surprised at how some people were not fazed at all, and she wonders if it is because they came from war zones and were used to it, “or just did not care.”

She related, “There were young girls laying out on top of the building sunbathing when all this was going on. Are they crazy?”

Re-focusing on her next event, “it was hard to go on, but it was something I knew I needed to put behind me if I was going to continue,” she said.

The day after her 800-meter disappointment, she had started practice for the 4×400 relay. During the practice, she felt a pop in her leg, which turned out to be a torn ligament. She was hoping to recover enough in the next couple of days so she could compete.

She had treatments on her leg and “my teammates really encouraged me,” but she did not want to hurt the team’s chances. When Mims figured she was at 80 percent, her alternate told her that her 100 percent was not better than Mims at 80 percent.

During the relay she pushed through the pain, unable to stretch to her full stride. Coming off the final curve, “I could hear the Australian girl coming up on me, I was trying to figure out how to hold on for my team.

She prayed — and “I don’t know what happened from that point to me passing off the baton to Cheryl.” Years later she watched the tape and saw how she had been limping somewhat, but after that curve her stride extended, though she has no memory of it. She figures God said “this is when I picked you up and carried you.”

The U.S. team won silver in the relay, setting a new American record as the East Germans shattered the world record by five seconds.

Being the Eyewitness

Returning home to Cleveland, she attended a community memorial service for the athletes, with a special focus on David Berger, who was from Cleveland, and was the only one of the Israeli athletes not buried in Israel. Mims said that before that event, she knew very little about the Jewish community in Cleveland.

“I was there to represent the Olympic community and connect with the Berger family,” she said. “That was a very special, very sad time.”

A weightlifter, Berger was a 1966 graduate of Tulane University, and made Aliyah in 1969 after competing in the Maccabiah Games.

Though Mims grew up in Cleveland, her father, Cecil Manning Sr., was a native of Adamsville, near Birmingham. Before moving to Ohio for his job, he played baseball in the Negro Leagues. A first baseman, he broke his finger on a ball that was thrown to him, and soon was cut from the team. “Back then if you’re a black man, they didn’t fix anything, they just threw you out and got the next one,” she said.

That finger stayed bent, and when Mims was a child, she would emulate how his finger looked. Her uncle finally told her why her father’s finger was bent, and they regarded it as a child’s tribute to him. She did, however, start stretching her finger back out.

At age 3, she was diagnosed with spinal meningitis and not expected to live. She recovered but was frequently sick, yet decided not to let anyone know.

Mims mentoring today’s runners

She won her first national running title in high school, and set an Olympic record in winning the gold medal in Mexico City in 1968. She also was in the 1976 Olympics and had qualified for the 1980 Olympics that the U.S. boycotted due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Mims has been inducted into numerous Halls of Fame, and at the 2000 Olympics was honored as an Olympic Legend.

An ordained minister, she started the United States Council for Sports Chaplaincy, which trains Olympians and Paralympians on how to become chaplains and pastoral caregivers, and go back after their days of competition are over, to serve the athletes in their sports.

The International Olympics Committee requires host countries to have volunteers in religious services, she said. “I’ve been the only Olympian who has worked in that area. That’s why I am trying to get more Olympians to be chaplains. Who better than someone who has walked in those shoes?”

She has also served as chaplain for the Tulsa Shock of the WNBA. She noted that when serving as chaplain, “You have to be prepared to care for not only those who are Christian, but those who are not Christians.”

Mims has served as a chaplain at every Olympics since 1988. Many times, she winds up meeting with Israeli delegations, once they hear that she was at the 1972 Games. Israelis want to hear “the rest of the story, what was it like to be there, to see certain things happen.”

She met some Israeli high school students in Texas, and when she heard they were about to do their military service, prayed for them. She has yet to visit Israel, but that is definitely on her list. A contemporary gospel recording artist, she wants to sing in Israel.

She continues to mentor U.S. runners, especially in middle distances, and women of color, who continue to be underrepresented in those events.

A few years ago, a 13-year-old called her and said she wanted to be like her. Mims had no idea that “I was talking to the second woman who would win the gold medal for the U.S., 53 years after me.” Athing Mu won the gold at the 2021 Games in Tokyo. They finally met in person this past June, and “just fell into each others’ arms and cried.”

On Oct. 29, she will receive the Jesse Owens Lifetime Achievement Award in Cleveland, and in early November will visit Birmingham. On the itinerary is a trip to the Negro Southern League Museum. Mims was thrilled to learn that they have corroboration of her father’s playing days.