A member of the Black September commando group with a hood over his face on the balcony of the building in Munich where several Israeli athletes were held hostage. (AP Photo)
The XX Olympics in Munich 1972—not those of ancient Greece or the first modern Olympic Games—are the rightful parentage of today’s Olympics. It was in Munich at the height of the cold war that Palestinian terrorists shocked the world by storming the Olympic Village and murdering eleven Israeli athletes in cold blood. The images of the hooded gunmen prowling the dorm’s walkways are seared in the memories of anyone old enough to have absorbed the around-the-clock TV coverage. The legacy of this horrific tragedy has informed every Olympic Games since and still contributes to the security mania and spending orgy that makes the modern Olympics what they are.
One of the many black ironies of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich was that it was meant to have the opposite impact, and indeed it might have, had reality not intervened.
The very purpose of Munich’s bid to host the games was to show off to the world how much Germany had changed since the war’s end. Munich was meant to be the antidote to the 1936 “Nazi” Olympics in Berlin, when the Reich’s capital was awash in swastikas and Adolf Hitler prominent in front-row seating. The prosperous, liberal West Germans wanted desperately to flout its fair postwar incarnation.
The new Munich was a modern metropolis, rich in culture and home to the high-tech industries that had catapulted the Federal Republic from a bombed-out shell to a booming, export-led economy in just two decades. The whole idea was intensely political from the beginning: to make the XX Olympics as “un-Berlin” as possible. The stadium’s magnificent glass roof, a canopy that swooped over the Olympic Stadium, was the city’s extravagant new pride, a multimillion-deutschmark design that exuded openness and good vibes.
Back in 1972 it was still novel for Olympic budgets to soar beyond all estimates and saddle cities with facilities that never pay for themselves. (Alas, when it comes to the games wreaking havoc with budgets and leaving behind ruins, the Athens 2004 Olympics takes the cake: Today a staggering twenty-one of twenty-two venues lie abandoned, and the magnificent stadiums are now overrun with rubbish and weeds.) For London, the 15 billion dollar budget is four times the original estimate.
From the very beginning the Munich Olympiad exposed the fallacy that the sanctimonious games were somehow above the raucous fray of politics. It was mired in geopolitical haggling from the onset. In addition to the GDR and the Eastern Europeans kicking up a fuss about the West’s Germany being host, the African countries threatened a boycott should white-ruled Rhodesia be invited. China vowed to stay away—and did—if Taiwan competed.
Still today the IOC stubbornly insists on the games’ apolitical nature, despite all evidence to the contrary. This is the reason it has refused to observe a minute of silence for the victims of the 1972 Munich massacre, despite the intense lobbying of President Obama, the German Bundestag, the Canadian national legislature, the Knesset and just about every Jewish congregation in the world. But the IOC doesn’t want to taint the games with the quotidian ugliness of politics. It would spoil the fun—and remind everyone of just how political the games are. (For some reason though it didn’t object to a tattered US flag from the World Trade Center appearing in the opening ceremony at the 2002 Salt Lake City winter games. Could it have anything to do with the nationality of the victims?)