Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : February 2006

Previous | Next

The '72 Olympic Games in Munich

Paul Carlin
Above: MSBA Executive Director Paul Carlin (left) with boxing Heavy-weight Champion George Foreman (center) and sportscaster Howard Cosell at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, where Carlin worked as Cosell's personal assistant. Below: Carlin (center) with Cosell (left) and Cosell's wife, Emma.
Paul Carlin

Steven Spielberg's recent movie, Munich, refreshes my recollection of my extraordinary experience working for ABC-TV at the 1972 Olympics in Munich as Howard Cosell's personal assistant. The XX Olympiad attracted 9,000 athletes from 123 countries. Although my memory and experience is rich with personal detail, the world's indelible memory of the '72 games is one of tragedy.

It was June '72 when I decided to search out ABC-TV in Munich. Earlier that year, my request to the U.S. Army to transfer my duty station from the Presidio in San Francisco to Munich had been accepted. There were only 12 enlisted positions in Munich (and 12 in Tokyo), so I was quite elated to get this opportunity to spend the last three years of my service in Europe and, in particular, in such a popular and beautiful city as Munich. Nestled in Southern Bavaria and within eyesight of the Alps, Munich had worked itself through its tragic past and World War II and Germany's Nazi dictatorship. Munich was the first German city to be awarded the Olympics since World War II, and the games were intended to mark a rebirth for West Germany.

Founded in the 1200s, Munich and Bavaria are famous for their festive nature and hospitality (known as gemutlichkeit in German), as well as their many historical sites, museums, architecture and, of course, numerous huge beer halls and Oktoberfest.

My goal was simply to get an ABC-TV press pass, so I could see much at the Games. Although I hoped to work with Bill Russell, a personal hero, in the basketball competition, ABC assigned me to Howard Cosell since we were both lawyers.

In late August, I picked up Howard and his lovely wife Emma at the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) in Munich. On the way to the hotel, the Iranian driver hit so many curbs and drove so dangerously that Howard had him replaced the next day.

During these three weeks, I spent a great amount of time in the Boxing Hall watching hundreds of matches. ABC broadcasted 62 hours of coverage at those games. A main part of my job was to develop a profile of any opponent of our American boxers. As we know, the bulk of American TV coverage is concentrated on following American athletes. Most of the nations supplied data to the computer, and I could get a print-out of much data about each fighter's record and personal history (details like hometown, occupation and so on). I would supplement my report with other data on other countries (Did you know, for example, that the Nile River originates in Uganda?) or jokes, which Howard would occasionally use (e.g., an Irish boxer was a train conductor, so he punches tickets for a living, but punches people for fun!)

The most intriguing part was acquiring data about the boxers from Communist nations, like the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, Mongolia and others, since none of these nations had supplied normal data to the main Siemens database. This required me to visit delegation headquarters of each of these nations. The Soviets had changed their boxers in all nine weight-classes from what was listed in the pre-printed program. The smell of Turkish tobacco was thick and harsh at their headquarters. The Cubans, who were and remain some of the best boxers in the world (including Muhammad Ali-look-a-like Theofilido Stevenson), were always congregated outside of their apartment building in the Olympic Village.

After having a cordial conversation with the Mongolian official about their boxers, my curiosities lead me to ask questions about the political relationship between Inner and Outer Mongolia. He glared at me and proclaimed the interview was over. It was a sensitive political topic since the Soviets and the Chinese were contesting to be the dominant influence in that territory.

I developed the utmost respect for Howard Cosell's abilities. Here was a smart, articulate, intellectually-probing man who seemed to be attracted to controversy – or able to create it. While other broadcasters shied away from the delicate racial issues involving the boycott of competition against racist Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Howard immediately jumped into the fray and sought out our African-American sprinters to get their opinions, especially in context to the past protest of our sprinters on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

Howard before a microphone was like Babe Ruth in the batter's box; more often than not, he would hit a homerun! In addition to doing the blow-by-blow announcing of the American bouts, he would also do his daily "Speaking of Sports" show back in the recording booth of ABC's temporary studio. He was able to do two or three broadcasts at one sitting and mostly without any notes. Howard was simply an amazing natural who could succinctly describe most any situation and bring the segment to a perfect conclusion in the allotted time.

Spending time at the ABC-TV studio location was always interesting, since all the broadcasting personalities would be there. Among them were Peter Jennings, Chris Schenkel, Keith Jackson, Don Gifford, Donna de Varona, Bill Russell, Jim McKay, all operating at their own level of availability and importance. The Olympics also attracted numerous celebrities, and Howard relished the many opportunities to meet stars like Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams and former-Olympian George Foreman.

Once, while driving through Munich, Howard asked me what I thought about boxing. Although I had been an athlete all my life and appreciated competition emotionally, I told him I had strong reservations about the sport. This was diplomatic-speak for my revulsion at seeing the pummeling and even bloodletting in some matches by one human or another.

"So do I," he said to my surprise. Although he had initially built his career broadcasting boxing (and become a celebrity himself through covering Muhammad Ali), he did later testify against boxing before a U.S. Senate panel.

On the evening of September 4, another American and I visited a disco (remember those?) in the Media City, which was a kilometer from the backside of Olympic Village. At about midnight, we departed, needing to get to the U-Bahn (subway) in order to get back to our apartments in the city. Coming to the eight-foot metal fence on the backside of the village, we did not give a second thought about hopping over it and taking a shortcut to the subway. I do not remember seeing any security at all at that time. Little did we know that four to five hours later, Black September terrorists would hop the same fence to gain access to the nearby Israeli quarters and take these non-political sportsmen hostage to make a point about their desperate political situation.

Arriving back at the village the next morning, my entry was blocked by machine gun-toting police. It was then that I learned about the hostage-taking and the tragic events which were developing (and which would later take the lives of 11 Israeli athletes and five terrorists). I often wonder what might have happened had fate arranged a meeting between us with the terrorists at the fence at the same time.

While the terrorists obviously needed to get over the fence, Spielberg's movie does not use the actual location in Munich (in fact, Spielberg actually filmed very little, if any, of the movie in Munich, although he does show some late-night revelers actually helping the terrorists over the fence).

That night, looking from the balcony of my little studio apartment, I seemed to be able to sense evil and death in the air. Those events effectively killed the atmosphere of the '72 Games, although the actual competitions continued amidst protest that they be stopped.

Now, 34 years later, the Olympics have expanded into huge spectacles involving the expenditures of extraordinary amounts of capital to build the sites. It is all done with the great hope that, while rapid travel seems to have made the world grow smaller, developing more communication between nations will generate more understanding and a greater hope for peace among all people. In the context of the attacks on September 11, and the subsequent bombings in Madrid and London, Spielberg's movie leaves us wondering if any progress had been made at all.

Paul V. Carlin is Executive Director of the Maryland State Bar Association.
Previous previous

next Next

Publications : Bar Bulletin: February 2006

Back to top