1972 Munich Olympics: Gold, partying and tragedy

The gold medal winning 1972 Munich Olympics rowing eight.  Athol Earl, third from left, recalls the day Palestinian  terrorist raided the games village.
The gold medal winning 1972 Munich Olympics rowing eight. Athol Earl, third from left, recalls the day Palestinian terrorist raided the games village.
This week marks the anniversary of one of New Zealand’s greatest sporting moments – the rowing eight’s gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics. But the games also marked the darkest day in sport when Palestinian terrorists raided the games village and killed 11 Israelis and a West German police officer.

Athol Earl was 19 at the time and hungover in the village with the rest of his gold medal-winning crew when police whisked them to safety. Today he talks to sports reporter Gordon Findlater as part of The Star’s Canterbury sporting icons series.

Within four days Athol Earl went from wild celebrations following New Zealand’s historic win in the rowing eight, to the sombre feeling of knowing nine Israelis – who had resided in the accommodation next door to New Zealand – had lost their lives in a hostage attack by Palestinian terrorist group Black September.

The terrorists scaled a 2m fence to enter the athletes’ village at around 4.30am on September 5, before breaking into the Israeli team accommodation and taking five athletes and six coaches hostage. Two Israelis were killed in the initial break-in before a further nine, along with a West German police officer and five members of the terrorist group, were killed just after midnight in the massacre at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base after the group and their hostages were transported there.

After days of partying following their gold in the opening week of the games Earl remembers waking hungover to armed West German police walking into the New Zealand accommodation. The group was then ushered to the canteen for a quick breakfast before being escorted by police off the games village via an underground car park.

A masked member of the Black September terrorist group stands on the balcony of the apartment where the group held its hostages during the Munich Massacr
A masked member of the Black September terrorist group stands on the balcony of the apartment where the group held its hostages during the Munich Massacre.
“We weren’t told what was happening at the time, we could only speculate,” said Earl.

After being told they wouldn’t be able to return that day Earl and his rowing teammates decided to travel to Lenggries south of Munich – where they had trained leading up to the games. That night they were able to return to their accommodation. The next day they fully learnt of the event which unfolded and the high of the Olympics quickly came crashing down. In the wake of the massacre the games were postponed by 36 hours.

“It’s not the real world you’re living in. You can hide from reality a bit living there in the Olympics . . . it became very sombre the next day when we realised what had happened,” said Earl.

On September 2, Earl and the New Zealand eight recovered from a second place finish to East Germany in their semi-final to win gold. From there the celebrations began.

“The race was about one or two in the afternoon. We had a couple of beers at the course, went back into the village and then the team manager gave us all a bottle of bubbly each and wondered why we got noisy,” said Earl.

“We celebrated alright. The winners got tickets to a big function going on in Munich for all past gold medallists. It was a black tie function, flash as . . . Johnny Mathis was there and I met Jesse Owens, like how many times can you meet Jesse Owens in your life.”

There was no slowing down the champion eight. The next day they ended up taking place in a boat [drinking] race which for many of the team superseded the efforts of a day earlier when they once again took on East Germany who were the powerhouse nation of rowing at the time.

“In those days they were seen as the most horrible people because they were the communists, where as they were just ordinary. The next day after we won they came and invited us for a barbecue lunch. We rocked up in t-shirts and jandals. They had ties and suits on, and we ended up having drinking races. . . we kicked ass,” said Earl.

The event created a strong bond between the two crews and 25 years later they had a get-together in Munich.

Athol Earl is used to meeting for coffee with his role as sales manager for PGG Wrighton real...
Athol Earl is used to meeting for coffee with his role as sales manager for PGG Wrighton real estate in Canterbury and Westland. PHOTO: GEOFF SLOAN
Earl, now 66, grew up on his family farm in Hawarden and began rowing when he attended St Andrew’s College.

Following school, Earl planned on giving up rowing to go farming. However, his school coach Fred Strachan – who was also a national rowing selector – had a meeting with Earl’s father who advised him Athol would be wise to move to Christchurch and have a crack at top level rowing.

“The first year out of school I was in the colts which is the under-23s now. The following year I was selected for the elite team to go to the European champs in 1971 in Copenhagen where we won with the new eight which had four changes from the year before,” said Earl.

The eight’s coach Rusty Robertson was from Oamaru and didn’t want to go north, meaning many of the crew relocated to Christchurch where they trained six days a week. Earl was working at the Bank of New South Wales and would knock off at 3pm to be at Kerrs Reach for training at 3.30pm.

“It’s a shitty bit of water [Avon River], but it’s what we’ve got and the good thing about it is you can train on it no matter what the weather,” said Earl.

After the success of 1972, Earl went onto win bronze with a new-look eight at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. However, he then left the sport still in his mid-20s to run the family farm when his father died after a number of heart attacks. He died in Switzerland on route to watch Athol row at the Munich games.

Earl ran the 330ha sheep and beef farm until 1992. He then bought a block of land near Blackball in the West Coast and began his real estate career. He then bought a LJ Hooker franchise in Rangiora before selling up a decade ago. He is now the sales manager for PGG Wrightson Real Estate in Canterbury and Westland.

Rowing is still well and truly a passion for Earl. He was a national selector from 2000-2013 and is still actively involved with the Avon Rowing Club which he says played a massive role in his life.

“I’m an Avon bigot. I’m tied up with the club still and love it . . . Every second Friday night we do drinks and there’s a group of us old farts who all rowed together through the club and we go to the Richmond Workingmen’s Club, have a few beers and talk about old times. We’ll talk about anything actually, it’s so cool,” said Earl.