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Olympic lore: the dream turns to nightmare ~ the 1972 Munich Games

June 15, 2012

One day in September: a hooded Palestinian terrorist during the siege of a room of Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village – it would disastrously escalate into the ‘Munich Massacre’ 

So, after the Star Wars-fuelled intergalactic hoopla this blog enjoyed last month, it’s now time to get back to Earth and (in the wake of the London Olympics just weeks away) the celebration of Summer Games of decades past. And following the posts on the Tokyo ’64 and Mexico City ’68 efforts, we’re now turning our attention to that decade of dubious highs and lugubrious lows, the ’70s. And, in those terms at least, that annus dectet‘s first Summer Games, Munich ’72 (August 26 – September 11), didn’t disappoint. An event most remembered for a dreadful development, it also boasted incredible achievements. In which case, one might very objectively say, this Olympics really had it all…


The Magic

Much optimism was in the air and hopes were high ahead of the Munich Games. On the back of its Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle), West Germany hoped these Olympics would be a successful showcase of their relatively rapid development as a peace-loving, self-sufficient global player. And, aiming to banish the memory of Munich’s strong association with Nazism and all it stood for, the host city had built an impressive looking multi-purpose site (Olympiapark/ ‘Olympic Park’), which included an Olympic swimming pool, a giant hall used for several events and a state-of-the-art stadium, designed by architect Günter Behnisch, that featured a roof of sweeping acrylic glass canopies supported by metal ropes. These Games promised to be open, friendly and progressive – just like the now proudly modern West Germany.


The Mascot

Still a firm favourite with Olympic fans today, Waldi the Daschund was in fact the first Games mascot to have a proper name and the first to capture the widespread, nay, global imagination. And frankly his enduring popularity isn’t hard to understand, given he’s a very colourful, very cuddly little chap – perfectly in keeping with the image the organisers wanted these Olympics to emit. In another first, the Munich Games were also the first to debut the instant hit that was graphic artist Otl Aicher’s pictograms, used to illustrate the different events.



The Moment

As mentioned in my previous Olympic post, US 200m medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s podium-bound protest at Mexico City ’68 brought politics to the post-war Games in a profound and unavoidable manner. The event sent a buzz around the world. What happened in Munich on September 5 1972, though, sent shockwaves around the world.

In the early hours of that morning, taking advantage of the lax security (owing to this being the ‘carefree’ Olympic Games) surrounding the ‘Olympic Village’ in which all the athletes and officials were housed, eight assault rifle-toting members of the Palestinian Black September paramilitary group broke into a room in which Jewish officials were sleeping and, within the next few minutes, shot one and forced the others to help find Israeli athletes in another room, then following another murder, proceeded to hold them all together in the first room as hostages. Hours then passed, during which Munich police negotiators attempted to broker a deal with the terrorists in exchange for the lives of the hostages (the former were demanding the release of 234 Palestinians being held in Israeli jails). At one stage, armed police entered the Olympic village, but their positions on roofs near the building containing the hostages and terrorists were broadcast by TV cameras, ensuring that not just the world watched their progress live, but so too did the terrorists on a TV in the room they were holed-up in. Amazingly, the decision to suspend the Games was only taken 12 hours after the crisis had begun.

Eventually around 10pm, following the negotiations, the terrorists and the nine hostages were transported by bus and then in two helicopters to NATO’s nearby Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base, ostensibly so the terrorists could be flown to Egypt. Here though the police enacted an ambush of the terrorists involving snipers, but poor planning meant it went awry (not least because it was believed there were only four or five terrorists). A gunfight ensued and some of the terrorists were killed, but so too were all of the hostages – most of them probably gunned down by the terrorists before the latter exploded grenades in the two helicopters from which the hostages couldn’t escape.

The legacy of this shocking and truly horrendous event proved long and controversial. Immediately afterwards, the Games resumed and, although a Memorial Service took place in the Olympic Stadium on September 8, many competing at the Games, attending them and millions more around the world felt that due respect hadn’t been paid to the slain Israeli athletes and officials. Indeed, down through the years, the moment when the US learned of their horrific fate has become TV legend; sports presenter Jim McKay’s words ‘They’re all gone’ still leaves viewers numb today (see video clip above).

Moreover, almost immediately after what quickly became known as the ‘Munich Massacre’, the Israeli government charged its security service Mossad to enact Operation Wrath of God, whose aim was to hunt down the terrorists who were still alive and those who planned the act. Details as to exactly what went on in the name of this operation remain very sketchy today, but were memorably ‘recreated’ in the Steven Spielberg film Munich (2005), while the entire subject was explored in the documentary One Night In September (1999). However, away from the specific details and the controversies, one irrefutable truth remains: the ‘Munich Massacre’ is by far and away the blackest event with which the Olympics has ever been associated – indeed everything the Olympics is and represents has never been quite the same since that dark day.


Gold rush: US swimmer supremo Mark Spitz (l) and Belarusian gymnast ‘giant’ Olga Korbut (r)


The Main Man

Mark Spitz ~ Events competed: seven. Gold medals won: seven. World records broken: seven. The greatest performance in a single Olympic Games? It’s hard to say no. His efforts in the 100m Freestyle, 200m Freestyle (see bottom video clip), 100m Butterfly, 200m Butterfly, 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay, 4 x 200m Freestyle Relay and 4 x 100m Medley Relay achieved Spitz utter, unequivocal immortality as easily one of the greatest swimmers and Olympians of all time. As did that oh-so cool ‘tache he sported back in the day. He is simply one of the great heroes of the ’70s.


The Main Woman

Olga Korbut ~ at an Olympics at which the USSR and Eastern Europe did particularly well to say the least (see the medal table at the bottom of the post), one Soviet – or, to be exact, Belarusian – athlete stood head and shoulders above all her compatriots, even if she was only 5 feet tall. At the tender age of 17, little Olga won three gymnastics gold medals in Balance Beam, Floor Exercise and the Team Competition. But what instantly endeared her to the world and made her a global superstar was the fact she shattered Western illusions of Soviet stoicism, as she shed tears like an ordinary girl after losing out to a teammate following an unfortunate fall on the Uneven Bars in the All-Round Individual Event, as well as flashing a smile as big as Minsk on the medal podium. And when she executed on the bars a backward somersault and a backward-release back flip (the ‘Korbut Flip‘; see video clip below), she drew gasps of surprise and delight – she was the first gymnast ever to perform either in international competition.



Mentioned in dispatches

  • In perhaps the most notorious Olympics basketball match of all-time, the United States were beaten in the Men’s final by the Soviet Union when the former, leading 50-49, were confused by a time-out at the match’s death that allowed the USSR a few more valuable seconds to score the points needed to take the gold. So unimpressed were the Americans they wouldn’t accept their silver medals
  • The Men’s 100m and 200m sprints were both won by Soviet Valeriy Borsov after the favourites for the former event, Americans Rey Robinson and Eddie Hart, missed their quarter-final heats because they were told the wrong start time
  • Great Britain’s heroine at these Games was Mary Peters, who won the Women’s Penthalon by just 10 points over the West German favourite, yet set a new world record in the process. A Northern Irish protestant, Peters was the victim of a death threat following her victory, which warned her not to return to her homeland and that her house would be blown up – all in the supposed name of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). She did, however, return to her home city of Belfast and was paraded through the streets , although she didn’t move back in to her house for three months
  • American Dave Wottle won the Men’s 800m despite being in last place three-quarters of the way through the final. After 600m had been run, he passed athlete after athlete, finally hitting the front just 18 metres from the line and winning the race by 0.03 seconds
  • Equestrian Team Eventing gold went to Great Britain, whose team included Mark Phillips, husband (at the time) of Princess Anne, who would go on to compete in equestrianism herself at the next Olympics, and father of Zara Phillips who will compete in the same sport at this summer’s Games


Glory and failure: pentathlete Mary Peters does the business for Blighty and Northern Ireland (left), but the American basketball team can’t believe they’ve lost to the Soviet Union (right)


The Memory

The abiding memory of these Games is – and always will be – the ‘Munich Massacre’. There’s no getting away from that. A horrendous event that the Olympics and wider culture is still reeling from today. It’s impossible to separate Munich ’72 from what took place on September 5 and 6 – and surely wrong to do so. However, these Games did throw up magnificent, nay, incredible performances from at least two athletes that will also be remembered for all times – the achievements of Spitz and Korbut will be etched in Olympic history for as long as the acts of those eight terrorist maniacs. And don’t doubt it, there’s more than some good in that.


The Medal Table

Gold Silver Bronze
1 Soviet Union 50 27 22 99
2 United States 33 31 30 94
3 East Germany 20 23 23 66
4 West Germany 13 11 16 40
5 Japan 13 8 8 29
6 Australia 8 7 2 17
7 Poland 7 5 9 21
8 Hungary 6 13 16 35
9 Bulgaria 6 10 5 21
10 Italy 5 3 10 18
12  Great Britain & NI 4 5 9 18




7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2012 12:05 pm

    The world changed substantially at these Olympic games in 2 differing ways.
    The “Munich massacre” proved beyond doubt that terrorism was with us… and should be treated the way Israel’s Mossad dealt with it. NOT the way most Western countries try to deal liberally with psychopathic murderers!
    Mossad use the “Gilbert and Sullivan” justice method. “Let the punishment fit the crime….”
    When will moronic politicians realise that you cannot trust a madman?

    Secondly, on the good side, Olga Korbut, Mark Spitz and Mary Peters all proved the Olympic ideal that you CAN be the best!
    Four years later at the Montreal Olympics and Moscow in 1980, Nadia Comaneci became the best ever Olympic athlete.
    Korbut, Spitz, Peters and Comaneci NEVER needed performance enhancement drugs to win.

    In BOTH cases, the proof is you cannot win by deception and dishonesty.

  2. June 15, 2012 5:01 pm

    Yes, the ‘Munich Massacre’ changed the face of sport and wider Western culture forever, Peter – no question. Sort of like an innocence lost. Although, the Israelis had criticised the Germans’ ‘carefree Games’ proposal as naive before the Games had actually started.

    But, it’s probably only fair to point out, the total ‘eye for an eye’ philosophy of Operation Wrath of God was politically and ethically controversial back then as it would certainly be today – even in Israel.

    Anyhoo, thanks for your comment, my friend – food for thought as always,,,! 🙂

  3. May 13, 2023 9:59 pm

    Lovely blog you havve here


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