Olympic horror

By Mark Baker | Living Here | |

In these days of murderous rampages in Roseburg and Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., and elsewhere, it’s worth noting that mass murder — and terrorism — are not new.

Steven Ungerleider, a Eugene-based sports psychologist and author, knows it all too well.

On Sept. 5, 1972, in one of the most horrifying twists in sports history, 11 Israeli athletes were murdered during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich by Black September terrorists from a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Ungerleider is the co-producer of the soon-to-be released documentary “Munich 1972 and Beyond,” which tells the story of the victims’ families’ struggle to discover and reveal the barbarism of the attackers.

“I thought I knew the whole story after all these years, but I didn’t,” the 67-year-old Ungerleider says by phone from Austin, Texas, where he was a gymnast at the University of Texas in the late 1960s and where he now lives part time as a visiting scholar.

Ungerleider is talking about a hold-your-breath moment in a Tel Aviv, Israel, hotel room this past June, when Ankie Spitzer, the widow of one of the murdered Israeli athletes, told the filmmakers something they had not heard before.

About 30 minutes into the interview by director Stephen Crisman, Spitzer, who has long been the spokeswoman for the survivors, said not only had the athletes been murdered, but some were “tortured and castrated,” Ungerleider says.

“And we all froze,” says Ungerleider, who moved to Eugene in 1970 to pursue his master’s degree and then a doctorate in psychology at the University of Oregon after graduating from the University of Texas.

“It’s time for the world to know the truth,” Spitzer, whose husband, Andre, was a fencing coach who died in the attack, told the filmmakers.

That one of the victims, weightlifter Yossef Romano, was castrated, has been known by his wife, Ilano Romano, ever since 1992, when she saw photographs the German government previously had kept secret, Ungerleider says.

But she and the others have hardly spoken of that or other elements they learned in 1992 after suing the German government and obtaining a “quiet settlement,” according to Ungerleider.

“What (the terrorists) did is that they cut off his genitals through his underwear and abused him,” Romano told a reporter for The New York Times last month. “Can you imagine the nine others sitting around tied up? They watched this.”

Yossef Romano and another victim, Moshe Weinberg, were shot to death during the initial assault at the Olympic Village. The other nine victims were taken hostage and eventually killed after a failed rescue attempt.

Spitzer and Romano obtained the photographs and other records in 1992 through their attorney after a government representative had leaked some of them, according to the Times’ story.

Ungerleider says he and the other filmmakers saw the photographs during the June interview with Spitzer.

“They’re horrible. It was hard to handle. We were all pretty shook up.”

The 44-minute documentary is undergoing its final cut but already has been getting worldwide publicity.

The film has been submitted to 23 film festivals, including Sundance in Utah and Tribeca in New York City.

Ungerleider and co-producer David Ulich are in talks with HBO, Showtime and PBS, as well as NBC, which will cover the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, to buy the film. Ungerleider hopes to show it in Eugene in February, possibly at the McDonald Theatre.

Ungerleider and Ulich are partners in the Foundation for Global Sports, a nonprofit group that “focuses on promoting healthy lifestyles using sport as a channel for stronger academics and mentoring relationships,” its website says.

Ungerleider is a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s panel for sport psychology and a consultant to the International Olympic Committee, or IOC. His six books include 2001’s “Faust Gold: Inside the East German Doping Machine,” a look at how that Communist regime encouraged athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs.

Ungerleider says the idea for “Munich 1972 and Beyond” was conceived on a plane flight to Europe with Ulich, an attorney, in early 2014.

They had both been asked by Thomas Bach, since 2013 the IOC president, to be part of a planned memorial in Munich to the 11 Israeli athletes who died in the massacre. The Foundation for Global Sports is funding some of the cost of the $2 million memorial, scheduled for completion next fall, along with the Bavarian state government, the federal German government and the IOC, according to The New York Times.

Ankie Spitzer and other survivors have tried for years to get the IOC to officially commemorate the massacre as part of later Summer Games. Most recently, at the London Games 2012, the IOC refused to allow a moment of silence for the 11 victims, saying it did not want to politicize the Olympics.

“For the Olympic movement under their past three presidents not to acknowledge, not give honor to the victims, has been disgusting,” Ungerleider told Register-Guard sports columnist Austin Meek last spring.

“It’s despicable. It’s unfair, immoral and caused a lot of harm.”

Change came with Bach, a German and an Olympic gold medal winner in fencing at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. Bach, Ungerleider says, knew many Israeli athletes and considered them friends.

And so, on that plane flight about 18 months ago, Ungerleider and Ulich had an idea.

“This needs to be a film,” he said.

That Ungerleider is Jewish only fuels his passion for the project.

“I was just honored to be a part of the memorial committee,” he says, “but I have a lot of friends in Israel.

“Being a Jew, it obviously has a lot of deep meaning to me.”

You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkBakerRG . Send email to mark.baker@registerguard.com .