Mike Rowbottom

For many journalists who covered the European Athletics Championships of 2002, the return to the Munich Olympic Stadium for the latest edition has stirred fond memories. But few, if any, will have a depth of recollection to rival that of Franco Fava.

Now 69, Fava is still pursuing what has been a long and illustrious career as a sports journalist - but his memories of this fantastic stadium with its spider-web roofing go back 50 years to the sporting event for which the arena was built, the 1972 Olympics. In which he competed.

Yesterday, before the athletics got underway as part of the second multi-sport European Championships, Fava was strolling in sunshine through a crowded Olympic Park, viewing again the arena that still has something of the look of space age about it in which he had competed in the men’s 3,000 metres steeplechase.

Franco Fava is back again at the Munich Olympic Stadium, as a journalist, 50 years after he competed there in the 1972 Olympic men's 3,000m steeplechase ©ITG
Franco Fava is back again at the Munich Olympic Stadium, as a journalist, 50 years after he competed there in the 1972 Olympic men's 3,000m steeplechase ©ITG

But he was reminiscing too about the dark and painful events that had occurred in the Athletes' Village next door to the Italian team building in Connollystraße, where two Israeli athletes were killed and nine other athletes and officials were taken hostage by members of the Palestinian Black September group and subsequently died in a shoot-out at Furstenfeldbruck, a local North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) airbase.

"The feeling I got yesterday when I got through to the stadium, the triathlon race was going on with a lot of kids, people around, and it was a really fantastic atmosphere," Fava told insidethegames.

"And I had for a second a sense of… bad feeling. On one hand, I said 'I feel young again, like 50 years ago.' But remembering what happened in 1972 to the Israel team, I thought, this is a festival for everybody in a place where we still have some polemics from the families of the people who died on the Israel team.

"As a journalist I was here at the 2002 European Championships. And I paid tribute when I came here in 2002 - I went to check again our building in Connollystraße, next to the Israeli building. I went to a monument commemorating those who died. I took part in a small ceremony but I was disappointed because it was very low key."

Members of the Israeli team mourn during a memorial ceremony held on September 6 1972 at the Munich Olympic stadium after 11 of their party had been killed by Palestinian Black September terrorists ©Getty Images
Members of the Israeli team mourn during a memorial ceremony held on September 6 1972 at the Munich Olympic stadium after 11 of their party had been killed by Palestinian Black September terrorists ©Getty Images

Fava ran well in the men's 3,000m steeplechase heats but narrowly missed reaching the final in 1972.

"I left the Olympic Village two days after the attack on the team from Israel. Their building was just next to ours in Connollystraße, because of alphabetical order.

"The year before, in 1971, I had taken part in a meeting in Jerusalem, and I had met many of the athletes from the Israeli team.

"The morning after the attack in the Athletes' Village I went outside to run, and that was when I had my picture taken and put on the front of the front of the local paper, with a story along the lines of 'life going on'.

"Although the Israeli quarters were just next to us we did not need to pass it to get outside.

"But at that time I didn’t understand what had happened. To be honest I only realised 100 per cent what happened two days later when I went back home. I read the papers, watched TV.

"It was so easy to get into the Athletes' Village in 1972. One morning I brought some friend of mine to the breakfast room without accreditation.

"Before I left there was an Italian journalist with no accreditation, a freelancer, he was pushing every morning to get into the Athletes' Village, which was quite busy.

"I used to have long hair, and this Italian journalist was bald. And he asked me to lend him my accreditation. And I said 'How can you do that? We do not look the same.' But he did - and it worked."

Fava was the last addition to the Italian athletics team for the Munich 1972 Olympics.

Franco Fava leads in his men's 3,000m steeplechase heat at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where he is now reporting on the European Athletics Championships ©Campioni
Franco Fava leads in his men's 3,000m steeplechase heat at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where he is now reporting on the European Athletics Championships ©Campioni

"I was still 19 and my goal at the beginning of the 1972 season was to run the standard time to make the Olympic Games. Because for everybody that is the final call, to get into the Olympics, especially if you are so young," Fava recalls.

"I started the season running the steeplechase because it was the best event where I could have a chance to get to the Games. The standard time then for Italy was 8min 38.8sec. I started the season with an 8:40, I made several races all around 8:40, but I was not able to get the standard time."

Eventually his national coach suggested he run in a Denmark versus Italy match in Haro, where his team-mate in the steeplechase, who held the Italian record of 8:33.8, was also competing.

"The coach said to me, 'Look, if you beat him in Haro, I will send you to the Bislett Games in Oslo.' That was on the third of August, 1972, and it was the last chance to get the time.

"So I won the race in Haro, again in 8.40, and then they sent me to Bislett. And I did what I had to do - break the Italian record, which I did by four-tenths. So I was the last one to get into the team.

"I lost a lot of advantage from the Italian Olympic Committee because no one was thinking to send me to Germany. And I ran the steeplechase heats when I was still 19. I ran again close to my Italian record, but unfortunately I missed the final."

History records that Fava finished fifth in heat four, clocking the same time, 8:35.00 as Britain’s fourth-placed Steve Hollings, but both failed to earn one of the three qualifying places in a race where Kenya's Amos Biwott set an Olympic record of 8:23.8.

Biwott would only place sixth in the final, however, as his compatriot Kip Keino equalled the new Olympic record in taking gold, with another Kenyan, Ben Jipcho, second, Tapio Kantanen of Finland third and Poland's Bronislaw Malinowski, who would win Olympic silver in 1976 and gold in 1980, fourth.

The picture that appeared in a Munich paper featuring Franco Fava the day after the Israeli team members were taken hostage ©Franco Fava
The picture that appeared in a Munich paper featuring Franco Fava the day after the Israeli team members were taken hostage ©Franco Fava

But Fava was launched in his international athletics career.

"After the Olympics I kept going with the steeplechase, and I improved my Italian record two or three times in 1973, and we are back in the European Championships in Rome in 1974, where I broke again the Italian record - I ran 8:18.85 - but I was not lucky and I just missed a medal," Fava said.

"The battle for gold was between Anders Gärderud of Sweden and Poland’s Bronislaw Malinowski, a good friend of mine with whom I had been training in Italy many times.

"And Bronislaw said to me, 'Look, I want to beat Garderud so I need a fast race.' I said 'I need a fast race too because my finish is not so good. Let’s make it that I will lead the first pace 8.20, 8.18 pace.'"

At that time the world record was held by Jipcho, 8:14.00.

"I was third until the bell. I was third until the last water jump. But then the German, Michael Karst, just passed me and I was only fourth. But my time was again faster - another Italian record of 8:18.85. And if you go to check now the fastest steeplechase time at a European Championship, my time is still the 20th fastest.

"It was the fifth-best time in the world - but I was only fourth in the European Championships!"

The plan worked for Malinowski, however, as he took gold ahead of Gärderud.

Munich's Olympic Stadium hold many memories for Franco Fava ©Getty Images
Munich's Olympic Stadium hold many memories for Franco Fava ©Getty Images

At the Montreal 1976 Olympics, Fava was eighth in the marathon, running 2 hours 14min 24sec, and finished fourth in the World Cross-Country Championships in 1977, the best-ever finish by an Italian at that time.

He won both the 5,000m and 10,000m at the 1975 Summer Universiade in Rome, and at the longer distance, cut the Italian national record from 28:16.4 to 27:42.7 between 1975-77.

He also broke the Italian 20 kilometres track record and, in the marathon, had a best time of 2:12:54.

Eventually his running and writing careers merged.

"I like to let other people learn my experience, and towards the end of my career I started to do reports of my races for an Italian tabloid paper," Fava said.

"I was at first a pure freelance, paying my expenses, then I was press chief for the Italian Athletic Federation, then I was editor of the Italian athletic magazine, I was the founder of a running magazine in Milan, Corriere, I was deputy chief of press media for the IAAF [International Association of Athletics Federations, now World Athletics] and then working as full-time journalist for my paper, Corriere dello Sport, for more than 20 years until 2011.

"Since 1974 I have missed only one European Athletics Championships, in Prague in 1978. I was supposed to run, but my condition was not good so I did not go as an athlete or a journalist. After that I have never missed one.

"But the Olympics changed my life. Not just from the sports point of view - it opened my mind for everything."