NEW YORK -- The kidnapping and killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 was probably the world's most notorious and gripping terrorist act - until Sept. 11, 2001.
When making an ABC documentary on the Munich attacks, producer Natalie Jowett Antley's instinct was to avoid tying the two events together. It seemed too obvious, too cheap.
Yet virtually every family member of a Munich victim contacted by ABC raised the connection themselves.
The date had a resonance; their loved ones also died in September - Sept. 5, 1972 - and there were 11 Israelis killed. In both cases, innocents were murdered because of a political conflict they played no part in.
"Munich was perhaps the fuse that started off all this horror, particularly 9/11," said former ABC sportscaster Jim McKay.
ABC's documentary, "Our Greatest Hopes, Our Worst Fears: The Tragedy of the Munich Games," airs Sunday at 1:30 p.m. EDT. The title refers to a McKay statement shortly before he told the country that nine remaining Israeli hostages were killed in a bungled rescue attempt. The worst fears were confirmed, McKay said. "They're all gone."
"Saying the words, 'They're all gone,' was maybe the hardest thing I've done on television," McKay said.
The tragedy was probably the most indelible broadcast during the glory years at ABC Sports. A team sent to cover a sporting event was suddenly thrust into covering a huge news story that unfolded with agonizing tension. It's hard to imagine then-ABC Sports president Roone Arledge later being appointed to run the news division if he hadn't shown his mettle on this story.
The only ABC News reporter on the scene was then-Mideast correspondent Peter Jennings, who sneaked into the Italian athletes' quarters across from the Olympic compound kidnapping and hid in a bathroom when authorities tried to make sure no reporters were present.
The illuminating documentary is particularly tough on German authorities, who were disorganized both at the Olympics compound and in launching an attack when the kidnappers and hostages were taken to a nearby airport.
Anouk Spitzer, whose athlete father, Andre Spitzer, was one of the hostages killed, called the Germans "a bunch of amateurs who really, in my eyes, killed my father."
The film also points out the timidity of Olympics officials past and present, both in continuing the 1972 games after the killings and in refusing the victims' families' request to have a moment of silence in future opening ceremonies.
While Antley had the benefit of ABC's archives in making the film - she uses audio tapes found in a producer's closet of Jennings and the late Howard Cosell describing helicopters taking the hostages to the airport - she also had a tough act to follow. A documentary film about the attack, "One Day in September," won an Academy Award in 2000.
Antley admitted she was a little scared to see "One Day in September" after being assigned the new film.
"After watching it, I felt a bit relieved," she said. "While they were extremely careful in telling the facts of the day, a lot of the emotion was missing."
Watching a screening of the new documentary this week, McKay said he was choked up in a way he wasn't 30 years ago.
"This is a new experience, and it went right to my stomach," he said. "It will be there for a long time."
The documentary contains footage of a World Trade Center tower collapsing, the first time that has been shown on ABC since it was banned about a week after Sept. 11 because it was too upsetting to viewers. Despite Antley's intentions, this attempt at terror linkage feels gratuitious.
The current climate also had something to do with Antley's decision not to track down and interview Jamil Al Gashey, the only surviving terrorist from that day. He was interviewed while in hiding in Africa during "One Day in September."
ABC wasn't willing to commit to the time and expense of finding Al Gashey, Antley said, but also, "I don't know if it's a good idea to put a terrorist on television."
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