Former Olympian and Maccabiah athlete Karen James

Former Maccabiah athlete carries a torch for ’72

The death of nine Israeli athletes and two coaches at the Munich Olympics shook the world in 1972 and for many, the tremors of that dark time in sports history are still felt today. Almost 40 years and 10 Olympic Games have gone by but the horrific memories of Munich in ’72 are still fresh in the mind of Karen James, then a 19-year-old Canadian swimmer who had fulfilled her dream of being an Olympian.

James, in Toronto on March 9 as a special guest of Maccabi Canada, told an attentive audience about her brush with fate in the wee hours of the morning on September 5, 1972. With less than a week to go in the Games, and her own competition accomplished, James was returning to the athletes’ village with several fellow Olympians. They decided to hop a chain-link fence into the compound, a youthful transgression, to avoid walking around to the front gate. “The pressure was off,” she added. “Training was over.”

It was here, in the early morning hours, that they spotted several other figures taking the same shortcut, something, she says, that athletes had been doing all along. “They did not look like athletes,” said James about those who would later be identified as members of the Black September Movement. “But they did not look threatening.” As daylight broke and news spread about the hostage-taking, the sound of helicopters whirred overhead and anxiety spread throughout the village. From her vantage point James told the hushed audience she was able to see the window of the apartment where they were holding the hostages and was able to watch them being lead out of the building later on in the day.
“I was shattered by what I had seen,” she said as she reflected on how news of their immanent release turned into a nightmare announcement by ABC announcer Jim McKay solemnly telling the world “They’re all gone.”

As history will recall, the terrorists demanded the release of over 200 Palestinians serving time in Israeli jails. At the airport, a failed rescue attempt claimed the lives of all nine of the remaining hostages as well as several of the terrorists. And the Games, after deliberation, continued, with flags at half mast, and James winging her way back to Canada. “The Games should have ended,” she said. “It didn’t feel right for me.”

For James, whose international swimming career began as a 12-year-old Maccabi Canada athlete at the 1965 Maccabiah Games, it took 24 years before she was able to allow herself to completely process the events of that fateful September day, acknowledging that those dark figures she saw that night were not athletes and perhaps something could have been done to change that dark page of history.

Though she lives with that experience every day, James told those gathered at the Richmond Hill Performing Arts Center, that she has since made the decision to become more involved and reconnect with the Jewish community. Prior to her evening appearance at the Center, the Vancouver-born philanthropist spoke to Jewish high school students in Toronto about her life experiences, including the honor of being of one of the last to carry the Olympic torch prior to the Olympic Games in Vancouver.

It was at these Games, perhaps, that James made her biggest impact in recent history. Like all torchbearers, James was asked to watch a motivational video about the torch and its significance to the Olympic movement. As the video played scenes of Nazi Germany, the birthplace of the torch run during the 1936 Berlin Games, James couldn’t help but feel the need to speak out about the inappropriateness of the video production, both to the Jewish community and the world.

“Inspire me? Are you kidding?,” she told a gathering of media in Vancouver at the time. Viewing of the production was discontinued by the torch committee and replaced with something more appropriate, a change lauded by the Jewish community.

“I’m learning to speak out when it’s time to speak out.”