By Martin Cleary
Ole Sorensen is on a trans-Canada mission of remembrance.
Fifty years ago this week, he was a witness to the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games, which took the lives of 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and officials as well as a West German police officer and five members of the Black September terrorist group.
As a member of the Canadian Olympic wrestling team, Sorensen was saddened to learn the 20 hours of horror over Sept. 5 and Sept. 6 had claimed the lives of two wrestlers, one wrestling coach and one wrestling referee on the Israeli team.
Sorensen didn’t know any of the four Israeli team members personally, but he considered them part of his greater wrestling community. When they were murdered, Sorensen was emotionally affected.
As a way of coping with this significant and emotional anniversary and to remember their deaths, Sorensen decided to visit the five remaining members of the Canadian 1972 Olympic wrestling team and family members of two deceased teammates. He was unable to contact one teammate, Ronald Ouellet, who had returned to the United States.
During the summer, Sorensen connected with his old wrestling mates to see if they would welcome him for a visit. His idea was well received and this week Sorensen embarked on a pilgrimage to drive across Central and Western Canada to visit and share memories with them.
“I must do something,” an emotional Sorensen said as he prepared to make his trip. “I’ve put together a plan and I’m driving across Canada solo by car. I’ll stop off at their homes.”
Teammates, including some he hasn’t seen since the end of the 1972 Games, asked Sorensen to visit for a few days. But he simply wants to stop and offer a commemorative Munich Olympic plate to each one, share some photos, pass along some memorabilia from the Canadian Olympic Committee and remember the Israeli Olympic wrestlers.
Sorensen, who wrestled in the lightweight 68-kilogram Greco-Roman discipline and was eliminated after a tie and a loss, will visit Pat Bolger (62 kilograms) in Toronto, Egon Beiler (57 kilograms) in Kitchener-Waterloo, George Saunders (90 kilograms) in Thunder Bay, Alfred Wurr (74 kilograms) in Winnipeg, and Gordon Bertie (52 kilograms) in Edmonton.
He’ll also visit family relatives of deceased teammates Harry Geris (100 kilograms) in London and Taras Hryb (82 kilograms) in Vancouver to talk about the friendships he had with them as well as leaving the commemorative plate, photos and a COC gift.
The commemorative Munich 1972 Olympic plates were issued by the Royal Copenhagen company. Sorensen received a plate as a gift from a relative in Denmark, when he made the Canadian Olympic team.
When Sorensen was in Copenhagen five years ago, he saw one of the plates in a pawnshop window. He spoke to the owner, who had a box full of the plates in the basement, and Sorensen brought a dozen home to Canada.
Sorensen, whose son Cody was a two-time Olympic bobsleigh athlete for Canada, also will give each of his teammates and the relatives of the deceased teammates a pin and a gift provided by the Canadian Olympic Committee.
The memories of that tragic day will forever be part of Sorensen’s sporting history.
“We (Canadian teammates) were all so close,” he recalled in a soft tone.
“The (Olympic) Village was segregated between men and women. The Israeli team was across from us, about 30 feet away. We looked out our windows and saw the terrorists wearing hoods.
“That was the day of my (Greco-Roman wrestling) event. I was on my way with my manager to the weigh-in. We saw the people with guns and hoods.”
About 4 a.m. on Sept. 5, 1972, eight members of Black September, a Palestine Liberation Organization affiliate, scaled an unguarded fence into the Athletes’ Village. During the initial break-in, two Israeli team members were shot and killed, including wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg.
While some Israeli athletes and team members escaped the attack, nine were captured and held hostage. Black September demanded the release of 234 Palestinians held by Israel and two German left-wing extremists in West German jails.
After almost a day of negotiations, the attackers and the nine hostages were taken by two helicopters to the airport in Fuerstenfeldbruck for a planned trip to Cairo.
But when sharpshooters began firing at the assailants at the airport, the attackers tossed a grenade into one of the helicopters and fired shots into the other helicopter, killing the nine Israeli Olympic team members.
The Olympic Games came to a chilling halt for 34 hours before International Olympic Committee chair Avery Brundage declared “the Games must go on.”
Sorensen and several other Canadian athletes approached then-Canadian Olympic Association official Dick Pound and discussed whether the country should compete in the final days of the Summer Games.
Pound said “we will support whatever decision you make,” Sorensen explained. “He said, ‘I’m older, and you may regret (not competing) for the rest of your days. If you can find the courage, stay and fight, run or swim.’”
Sorensen stayed, fought and competed in his only Olympic mission.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the International Olympic Committee announced it would take some responsibility for the poorly secured Athletes’ Village, the terrorist attack and the deaths of 11 Israeli Olympic team members.
During the 50th anniversary ceremony of the Munich massacre on Monday, the German government apologized for multiple failures it made before, during and after the tragedy and awarded relatives of the slain Olympic team members $28 million Euros ($36.7 million Canadian) in compensation.
In Sydney, three women courageously spoke at that IOC event and Sorensen was invited to have a private audience with them afterwards.
“I met them informally. They had lost the most important person in their lives. They consoled me rather than me consoling them,” he added.
“They (Israeli athletes, coach, referee) were just like us, amateur wrestlers in the most exciting event of their lives. They were deprived of that. There’s no rationalizing that from any direction. It’s a sheer tragedy.”
So, Sorensen is taking a long drive to talk to his 1972 Olympic teammates or family members of deceased team wrestlers about a time that still means, and will always mean, so much to him.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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