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?)
The security threats the Germans took most seriously were on the domestic front, such as African American militancy on the US team, which had raised its head in Mexico four years previously and had plenty of supporters in the black GIs stationed in the country. Of course, there was also the Baader Meinhof group among other leftist radicals that had been wreaking havoc in West German cities.
the games’ low-key security was meant to reflect Germany’s new, peaceful bearing. The Olympic Village was surrounded by nothing more than a six-foot-high chain-link fence, barbed-wire naturally a historical no-go. The daytime security guards wore light blue leisure suits and carried walkie talkies. After the games’ first week, just about anybody who wanted could come and go from the village, so laid back was the mood. The athletic competitions had already launched the petit Romanian gymnast Olga Korbut to fame and witnessed the U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz capture a record seven gold medals. The Germans and everyone else were head over heels about the extravaganza in the Alps.
On September 5, the competitions’ tenth day, changed everything. Nine Palestinian commandos from Black September scaled the back fence and took hostage much of the Israeli team. Two Israelis were gunned down attempting to resist the attack. One of the bullet-riddled corpses was dumped in plain view for the world’s cameras. The special horror of the situation was plain to the West Germans immediately: once again Jews faced political murder on German soil.
The attack caught the Germans so off guard they could only bumble until a hail of bullets and a grenade explosion took the hostages’ lives. The Federal Republic didn’t even have a special counterterrorism unit to deal with hostage crises. (This would have been too reminiscent of the SS or the Gestapo! Yet less than a year later they had one in place. Munich 1972 was the birthplace of Germany’s GSG-9.)
The world watched on in horror as the masked terrorists stalked across the balconies. Finally the terrorists agreed to accept a flight, with the hostages to the Middle East. But at the airport, after a chaotic gun battle, the terrorists turned on the hostages, cruelly murdering everyone of them before trying to make a get-away.
The bloodshed constituted what today is still called “the darkest day in the history of the Federal Republic.” There was serious consideration of discontinuing the games then and there, a response that some observers still think would have been appropriate. But, no, the games had to go on. Olympic face had to be saved, running races won. The fact that the Bavarians seemed to see themselves and their wunderbar Olympiad as the real victim of the terror was summed up in headlines like one calling it “the most beautiful Olympics ever wrecked.”
According to historian David Clay Large, whose fine book Munich 1972 takes stock of the debacle: “Among the questions raised by these most tragic of games was whether the Olympic flame… should not stay extinguished for good.” The Olympic spirit would triumph over politics, no matter what the moral cost. Only a small handful of athletes had the integrity to pack their bags and leave the games on account of the murders.
The ugly pall of the Munich tragedy has hung over every subsequent Olympics. Security budgets have soared, to the point that for the Atlanta games in 1996, security was the largest budget item of the entire event. In the run-up to the 2004 Athens games, authorities rounded up and incarcerated local leftists and suspect Muslims. In 2008 in Beijing some 100,000 soldiers guarded the Olympic city. And now London.
Despite their endless doping scandals, host cities that inevitably wind up bust, and jousting on and off the field that does more to inflame nationalist tensions than assuage them, the great and glorious Olympics must persevere. If the events of September 5 and 6, 1972, didn’t put a stop them, surely nothing ever will.