As a 19-year-old Jewish swimmer competing in the Munich Olympics in 1972, Vancouverite Karen James was at the pinnacle of her competitive swimming career. But just hours after towelling off from her 200-metre medley (a race combining four different swimming styles), she witnessed something that would change everything.
There were celebrations late into the evening that night and it was 4 a.m. by the time James and three of her friends made their way back to the athlete’s village. Security was lax at the time and though there was a fence around the village, it was easier to scale it than to walk around to the entrance.
“Before we started climbing, we noticed four men standing in the shadows,” recalled James, who’s now the chair of the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. “They didn’t look like athletes, but they didn’t look threatening, either, and they were carrying big duffel bags. When we made the decision to climb, they climbed with us.”
Later, the sound of helicopters woke her from her slumber. When she left her room to find out what the noise was all about, she and other athletes were pushed inside a building for security reasons.
“From there, we could see the window where the Israelis were being held hostage,” she recalled. “We could see the negotiations and we saw the Israelis being led off – blindfolded and with hands bound – to the bus that night.”
She learned later that the four men who had scaled the fence with her just hours before were members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, which was responsible for murdering 11 Israeli athletes in Munich.
James left Munich a day after the memorial service for the slain athletes and kept silent about what she’d witnessed for 34 years. “I felt guilt,” she admitted. “I had a lot to say, but I felt complicit.”
In 2006, as co-chair of swimming for the Maccabi Games in Vancouver, she was asked to deliver a tribute to the 11 Israeli athletes, and there, in front of an audience of 10,000, she revealed her story. It was a turning point in her Jewish journey, she reflected.
“Giving that speech and telling my story has reconnected me to the Jewish community,” she said. “It’s gotten me involved to a place where I wanted to give back. Today, I’m committed to community and I know how important it is to me.”
James has been on the Federation’s board for the past nine years and has served in numerous roles. In June, she took the helm of the board for a two-year term.
She’s also given talks about the 1972 Munich Olympics throughout North America. “Each time I tell it, I’m emotional. But at the same time, I feel like if nothing else, I’m keeping the memory of the slain athletes alive,” she said.
Her feelings about the Olympic Games remain deeply ambivalent to this day. James is resentful that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has not done a full honouring of the athletes, specifically in the opening ceremonies. “In Rio, before the games started, they did a memorial, but they’ve never mentioned the names of those athletes in front of thousands of people,” she said.
The Israeli government and the governments of several other countries asked for a minute of silence to be observed during the London Olympics in August 2012, the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre, but the IOC refused. James suspects that money and politics were behind the decision.
Last fall, a memorial garden opened in Munich, at the site of the hostage taking, which was supported and endorsed by the IOC. James hasn’t been back to the city in the 45 years since the massacre, but she’s hoping to see it.
“Telling my story has been a transforming experience in my life,” she reflected. “There’s been a direct interplay of speaking out and connecting to my community, and it’s given my life immense reward and purpose.”