The Fifth Lap
When the celebration of the London Olympics kicks off this summer, it will also mark a very somber anniversary. It will mark 40 years and 10 Olympiads since the day that, as one athlete put it, the modern Olympics lost its innocence.
In the 1972 Munich Olympics, eight terrorists of the radical Black September faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization scaled the fences of the Olympic Village and stealthily forced their way into the apartments of the Israeli Olympic team. They killed two immediately upon entering the facility, then took nine hostages and gave German officials a list of demands.
The nightmare culminated almost 24 hours later in a botched rescue attempt. When the shooting ended, all the hostages, 11 total Olympic athletes and coaches, were dead.
While the history of this event is important in its own right, I'd like to focus on the lessons from the days that followed. They are lessons that apply acutely to us at Rice, whether we are pursuing athletics or another endeavor.
In the days following the tragedy, athletes from around the world were challenged to overcome shock and grief and fight terrorism the only way they could: being great.
While some packed their bags and returned home without competing, many more took up the challenge. They raced around the track, they put the shot and they won medals. They fought violence, not with violence of their own, but with greatness.
We are at Rice because we have the potential to be great. Our university has helped prepare great doctors, engineers, economists, scientists and historians, great businessmen and public servants.
With this greatness comes a challenge. When faced when an event as shocking and terrible as the Olympians of the 1972 Munich Olympics faced, are we prepared to still be great?
It is possible, too, that our calling during such a crisis might be more than to simply be great.
Bill Bowerman, the legendary University of Oregon track and field coach and co-founder of Nike, was the head track and field coach for the U.S. team in Munich. In the days following the crisis, Bowerman was charged not only with being great, but with assisting others in dealing with their grief so that they too could be great.
In his outstanding book "Bowerman and the Men of Oregon," U.S. marathoner Kenny Moore relates how Bowerman met with athletes individually or in small groups, not just updating them on logistics but also listening to them, being with them, and helping them put the recent events and their roles in the next few days into a greater context.
Years later, Bowerman would describe his time as head coach in Munich as the worst experience of his career. Despite this despondency, his wife provided a deeper perspective. While the events may have been the worst of his career, she pointed out that his skills were so essential during that time of crisis that it was a "magnificent use of her man."
There is a challenge to each of us that comes as we commemorate the tragedy of the 1972 Olympics. It is a challenge to take our talents and take the preparation that Rice has given us to be great not only when things are going well, but in the most dire of circumstances.
Gabe Cuadra is a senior at Will Rice College
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