On the eve of taking up a world prestigious position no one had such a baptism of fire as Lord Michael Killanin in September 1972. He was to succeed the autocratic Avery Brundage as president of the International Olympic Committee, and was regarded as a breath of fresh air.
For 20 years Brundage, a wealthy American, had been a zealous advocate of amateurism in a modern world where sport was inevitably becoming commercialised. Against the changing attitudes of his committee Brundage had fiercely resisted all the advantages being offered by TV rights and sponsorship. The Olympics at Munich that year was to be his swan song. But it ended in tragedy, and fierce criticism of his handling of a very difficult situation.
Germany, only too well aware of the last time it had hosted the Olympics, in 1936 on the eve of World War II, was anxious to get everything right. In an effort to extend the hand of friendship security was lamentably light. In the early hours of September 5 eight members of the Palestinian terrorist organisation, Black September, broke into the apartments where the Israeli athletes and their trainers were staying. In a scuffle two Israelis were killed, a couple of others escaped out a window; but nine were taken hostage. The Palestinians demanded that hundreds of prisoners in both Israeli and German prisons be released by a certain deadline.
The world press had a major story on its doorstep, and it gave it continuous TV and press coverage. At a hasty meeting of the Olympic committee Brundage insisted that the Games continue. He believed that mass evacuation would cause panic, and that some semblance of normality would allow the authorities space for negotiation. But the crisis only escalated. While the games continued, Israel refused to release any prisoners. A desperate stand-off ensued. At one stage the German authorities decided to storm the building, but the terrorists discovered the plan by watching television, and warned them away.
The Palestinians eventually realised they would not succeed. They changed their demands for an aircraft to fly them to Cairo. This was agreed. As darkness fell the terrorists and their hostages were flown to Furstenfeldbruck airport by helicopter with the world press in hot pursuit. It was dangerously chaotic. As the hostages and terrorists were leaving the helicopter German army snipers opened fire. A fierce gun battle erupted. Two terrorists and a policeman were shot dead. Again there was a stand off, until the terrorists realised their position was hopeless. They began to shoot the remaining hostages. The police rushed out, grenades exploded in the helicopter. Only three terrorists survived and were taken into custody.
Israel was kept continuously informed as the crisis developed. Its prime minister, Golda Meir, had the phone to her ear as she sat in Tel Aviv with her advisers. At one stage, in the confusion of the final gun battle, when no one was sure who was shooting whom, she reported , that “Germans are shooting Jews....”*
Politics and various other crises were to constantly challenge Killanin’s eight years as president of the Olympics. Despite the inevitable stress, he appeared to handle it all with charm, a pipe filled with tobacco, and a towering intellect. He gave the Olympic movement a new impetus of inclusively (he brought China into the fold, while allowing its old enemy Taiwan to remain ), but insisted that it had the independence to resist persistent pressure to use the games as a political weapon.
The Montreal Olympics proved difficult. Even though rugby was not an Olympic sport, African nations were outraged at a New Zealand tour of South Africa only months before. Twenty-two of them boycotted the games despite Killanin’s diplomatic efforts.
Having agreed to host the 1972 Winter Olympics, Denver became fed up with all the preparations. Following a referendum among its citizens, it decided to withdraw. At the last moment Killanin persuaded Innsbruck in Austria to stage the event, which it did gladly.
In 1976 Montreal suddenly announced that it may not be finished its preparations in time. Costs, over runs, and strikes, left the Canadian city close to ruin. However, it pulled it together at the last moment, but not before Killanin had secretly negotiated with Germany to hold the games there if all else failed.
But the real nightmare was the 1980 summer Moscow Olympics. Following the invasion of Afghanistan in the previous December, US president Jimmy Carter called for a world wide boycott of the games. Margaret Thatcher supported his call, and severe pressure was put on Killanin and his committee to relocate the games. Killanin refused point blank to budge.
In the end, despite a world wide debate on the need to keep politics and sport separate, and the fact that 63 nations abstained from the games, Moscow went ahead as planned. Killanin remarked at their close:‘ I feel these games have proved that we do something to contribute to the mutual understanding of the world when we emphasise what we have in common and not what our differences are.’**
‘Looking rather fierce’
Despite the importance of his job, constantly in the press limelight, Killanin shunned a well equipped office in Switzerland for his study in his Dublin home. He was hugely popular in Ireland, and constantly enjoyed a relaxed pint with journalists and friends. He declined the offer of being an agreed candidate to be president of Ireland.
He was born Michael Morris in 1914, one of the old Galway Tribal families. He succeeded to the title Baron Killanin while still a schoolboy, was a journalist with the Daily Mail until the outbreak of war when he joined the 30th Armoured Brigade. He participated in the Normandy landings in June 1944 for which he was later awarded an MBE.***After the war he became involved in a number of Georgian conservation initiatives, wrote books (including the Shell Guide to Ireland, with Michael Duignan of NUIG ), and moved into film production including John Ford’s successful The Quiet Man. He loved his Spiddal home, and was chairman of the Galway Race Committee for many years. As he moved through the crowds at Ballybrit people would remark ‘There’s Lord Killanin. Sure he’s one of our own.”
Just before the 50th anniversary of the D-day landings I spoke to a number of Galwaymen who had participated. Lord Killanin, with a twinkle in his eye, told me the following alarming story.
He had arrived on the Normandy beaches after the initial fighting was over. Enormous quantities of tanks, lorries, Jeeps, mountains of material, and thousands of soldiers were all streaming inland. Killanin had been given a brand new BSA motorcycle. As he said himself he had just arrived, was enjoying his new bike, and was ‘swanning around’ weaving through the traffic.
Suddenly there was a siren, and a number of Jeeps approached. They skidded to a halt beside him. In the back seat was the unmistakable Commander of the British Ground Forces, Lord Montgomery, looking rather fierce. The driver asked Killanin: ‘Where is the British HQ?’
Killanin hadn’t a clue. But he had learned that in the army you can be foolish, but you must never look foolish.
He looked desperately around. And fixing his eyes in the distance snapped back: ‘Over there sir!’
The convoy sped off, sirens wailing. Later Killanin learned that he had sent Monty directly towards the German lines. Monty could have easily been captured or killed.
I asked Killanin what did he do then?
‘Oh I laid low for a few days. And when I realised nothing serious had happened, got on the BSA again, and motored on into France.”
NOTES: * Avery Brundage’s reputation was destroyed by his decision to allow the Games to continue. Germany however, was deeply traumatised, and humiliated by the event. Less than two months later the three remaining terrorists were released by the German government after two Black September members hijacked a plane and threatened to blow it up unless the three were released.
** Despite pressure put on the British Olympic committee it refused to cancel its attendance in Moscow. As a gesture, however, its athletes paraded under the Olympic flag and not the British one. The games were famous for the great rivalry between gold medal winners Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe.
Ireland also participated but it too paraded under the Olympic flag. In retaliation the Soviet Union, and 13 of its Soviet allies, boycotted the Los Angles games in 1984.
*** His wife, Sheila Cathcart Dunlop, daughter of the Church of Ireland rector, Oughterard, was also awarded an MBE for her work breaking German codes at Bletchly Park. A unique double for any family.