15 November, 2020
The Memorial Service at Munich 1972 with the IOC flag at half mast
The Memorial Service at Munich 1972 with the IOC flag at half mast

The 1972 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XX Olympiad, took place in Munich, West Germany, from August 26 to September 11. The games were the second to be held in Germany, after the Berlin 1936 edition. The German government was eager to have the Munich 1972 Summer Olympics present a democratic and optimistic Germany to the world, as presented by the Games’ official motto “Cheerful Games.”

In the history of the Olympics, the Games schedules were suspended during Munich 1972 for the first time because of a terrorist attack that massacred eleven members of the Israeli team. The Memorial Service conducted at the Olympic Stadium on September 6, 1972 was another first and the IOC President announced that in defiance of the terrorists, the competitions would resume after 34 hours.

IOC Tribute to Israeli Victims

At Rio 2016, the IOC President Thomas Bach, himself an Olympian took a bold decision to honour the victims of the massacre for the first time after 44 years at the Olympic Village. He himself read the names of the victims - Mark Slavin, 18 and Eliezer Halfin, 24 (Wrestlers), Andre Spitzer, 27 (Fencing coach), David Mark Berger, 28, Ze’ev Friedman, 28 and Yossef Romano, 32 (Weightlifters), Moshe Weinberg, 33 (Wrestling coach), Yossef Gutfreund, 40 (Wrestling referee), Yakov Springer, 51 (Weightlifting judge) and Kehat Shorr, 53 (Shooting coach).

Thomas Bach also led a minute of silence during the inauguration of a “place of mourning” in the Athletes Village in Rio 2016, to the admiration of all who gathered for such a ceremony held for the first time in the 120-year history of Olympic Games. Bach said: “The murdered Israeli Olympians were victims of an attack at the heart of the Olympic Games and against all the Olympic values. It is therefore fitting that these innocent victims should be remembered forever.”

The Munich 1972 Massacre Memorial

Thomas Bach, who was elected IOC President in 2013, played a pivotal role towards the families’ cause and contributed immensely towards the expeditious completion of the ‘Munich 1972 Massacre Memorial’ in 2017. The memorial in the Munich Olympic Park, rests unassumingly along a quiet walking path. Visitors to the site descend a short set of steps to enter the main space, which has the effect of stepping into a sanctuary. The exhibition area seems almost like a cave, resting under a thick mound of grass and blending into a backdrop of linden trees.

In the centre of the memorial, a triangular column display profiles of all victims with photographs. The design idea was to cut into the hill, to take something away from the landscape. When you think about the massacre, it took something away, cutting into the lives of the victims, the families, the Olympic Games. Thus, an attempt to fill this void with memory. Till then, a sculpture and a plaque have been the two primary memorials. It is indeed emblematic of the pain that has endured for many since they were massacred during the 1972 Olympic Games.

The memorial, family members of the victims said, will bring them yet another step closer to peace. “There are no happier people, no more satisfied people, than us,” said Ankie Spitzer, whose husband, Andre Spitzer was among those killed. “It took 45 years, but like I tell my kids, if you have a dream, pursue it, if you feel that it is just.” The healing process? That still feels incomplete. Spitzer with Ilana Romano, the widow of weightlifter Romano spent decades asking a formal acknowledgment of the massacre.

Highlights of the Munich Games

Amid calamities, the Munich 1972 Games did have its highlights. The edition was the largest with 121 nations, 195 events, 21 sports and 7,134 athletes - 1,059 women and 6,075 men. The logo of the Games was a blue solar (Bright Sun) by Otl Aicher, the designer of the visual conception commission. The Olympic Mascot, the dachshund, “Waldi” was the first officially named. The hosts wore sky-blue dirndls as a promotion of Bavarian cultural heritage.

The Olympic Fanfare was composed by Herbert Rehbein. The Olympic Park was based on Frei Otto’s plans and after the Games, it became a Munich landmark. The sites designed by architect Gunther Behnisch included the Olympic Stadium, Olympic Village, swimming hall and Olympics Hall. The design of the stadium with sweeping canopies of acrylic glass stabilized by metal ropes was considered revolutionary.

The Olympic Oath was taken by a referee. Canoing and kayaking made their Olympic debuts. Handball and Archery returned after a long absence. Badminton and Water Skiing were demonstration sports. West German Liselott Linsenhoff, who competed in the dressage event, became the first female equestrian to win a gold while Wim Ruska became the first judoka to win two golds. Dan Gable secured the gold in Wrestling without having a single point scored against him.

The Soviet Union with 50 golds, 27 silvers and 22 bronzes emerged victorious. The United States came second with 33G - 31S - 30B while East Germany finished third with 20G - 23S - 23B. The media star of the Munich Games was the tiny Soviet gymnast, Olga Korbut, whose dramatic cycle of success in team competition, failure in individual competition and renewed success in apparatus finals captured the attention worldwide.

Mark Spitz’s Incredible Seven World Records

Mark Spitz nicknamed “Mark the Shark” was the most successful Olympian at Munich 1972. On September 4, 1972, he achieved an incredible haul of seven golds, all with world records - 100m and 200m freestyle, 100m and 200m butterfly, 4×100m and 4×200m freestyle and 4×100m medley. Spitz at 22 became the sport’s measuring stick for greatness for more than three decades. He had won two golds, a silver and a bronze in Mexico City 1968.

Shane Gould of Australia won five medals at the age of 15. She won the 200m and 400m freestyle as well as the 200m individual medley with new world records. In addition, she won a silver and a bronze in 800m and 100m freestyle, respectively.

There were 532 participants from 52 countries competing in 29 swimming events. In terms of records, at least once in all events the Olympic record was broken and in 20 new world records set.

Greatest comeback in history

The men’s 10,000m final was notable for Lasse Viren’s world record performance. On the 12th lap, just before the halfway point, Viren and Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi, 10,000m bronze and 5000m gold medalist at Mexico City 1968 Olympics, tangled into each other and fell onto the track. Both recovered, yet Gammoudi fell out of the race two laps later, Viren caught up to the front and took the lead at about the 6000m mark.

With Viren leading the rest of the race, the lead pack reduced to five competitors with 600m remaining when he made his charge. He ran the final lap in 56.4; and won the gold setting a world record of 27:38.35. The Guardian listed Viren’s world record performance on September 3, 1972 as the greatest sporting comeback of all time. Viren would go on to win the gold in 5000m, where he would set an Olympic record of 13:26.42.

Tragedy of two world record holders

All their life, United States’ Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson prepared for this one week. All the wind sprints, weight lifts, stretch exercises, practices, interval training, going to bed at 2100, fueling on carbohydrates - all that go into making of elite athletes had been pointing to these two days. They had plenty of fresh air, health food, rest and recreation. They were ready.

That special sports page accolade, world’s fastest human, would be one of them. Would go up on a pedestal occupied only by the American greats - Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes and Charley Paddock. It was to be their “Chariots of Fire,” the culmination of a dream. All they had to do was to win the 100m. There was hardly a cloud on the horizon in Munich.

All they had to do was show up on September 1. That was the hard part. The 100m heats were held on August 31. They were through. What happened next is an embarrassment to this day. Both Hart and Rey who achieved the world record of 9.9 on July 1, just two months before had failed to arrive in time for the quarter-finals. The confusion led to the disqualification of the world’s two fastest sprinters.

What had happened? Well, it seemed clear that the American coach, Stan Wright, not conversant with 24 hour time used in Europe which showed the 100m 1/4 finals as 1600 which he read as 6pm because the US uses the 12 hour am/pm system. When the athletes discovered they all rushed. Hart and Robinson were too late as they were in H1 and H2 respectively.

Valery Borzov’s Sprint Double

In track and field, 38 events were contested, 24 for men and 14 for women with 1324 athletes from 104 countries. The Soviet Union’s Valery Borzov won the blue riband event 100m at 10.14 in the absence of two world record holders. Borzov went on to win the 200m gold as well with 20.00 and become the first non-North American to win the Olympic sprint double. He also secured a silver from the 4x100m Relay.

Eddie Hart came back to the track to take part in the 4x100m relay. At the Olympic finals, the US team comprising Larry Black, Robert Taylor and Gerald Tinker anchored by Eddie Hart established a new world record of 38.19. Eddie Hart was lucky to return home an Olympic gold medalist and a world record holder but Rey Robinson was reduced to zero.

Infamous Munich Massacre

Eight Palestinian militants affiliated with Black September would shock the world on September 5, 1972. At 0430 they scaled a fence surrounding the Olympic Village, disguised as athletes, and forced their way into the accommodations of the Israeli Olympic team. As they attempted to enter Building 31, Apartment 1, they were confronted by Yossef Gutfreund, a wrestling referee and Moshe Weinberg, a wrestling coach.

The militants had detailed plans of the dispositions of the Israeli athletes. Weinberg was forced at gunpoint to lead them to other rooms. The terrorists from Apartment 1, avoided Apartment 2 occupied by shooters had moved to Apartment 3, where they gathered more hostages and forced them back to Apartment 1. Weinberg had nearly gained control of one’s gun when he was shot. Despite being on crutches, Yossef Romano, a weightlifter, also made an attempt to disarm another. Romano was killed and his mutilated body was left in Apartment 1.

While two Israelis lay dead and nine others held hostage, the terrorists demanded the liberation of more than 200 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, release of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof of the Red Army from German prisons and an airplane to fly them to a safe destination in the Middle East. At about 2200, believing they had reached an agreement, the terrorists led their bound and blindfolded hostages into buses that transported them to waiting helicopters. The helicopters carried them to Air Base, where police were lying in ambush.

The police snipers used in the operation were not competent and lacked communication. In addition, they were armed with assault rifles and had neither long-range scopes nor night-vision. On the tarmac was a Boeing 727 filled with 17 police officers disguised as Lufthansa flight crew. It was intended that these officers would subdue the terrorists, but the police abandoned. Armoured cars that were to have aided got stuck. With myriad failures in planning and execution, the result was a disaster.

The helicopters arrived at about 2230 and two terrorists went to inspect the jetliner. Finding it empty and becoming aware of the deception, they shouted, at which point police opened fire.

A gun battle ensued and three terrorists and one police officer were killed. The helicopter flight crews ran for cover, but the Israeli athletes were bound together. After the initial fusillade, in which the terrorists shot out the floodlights illuminating the tarmac, the scene settled into a tense stalemate punctuated by sporadic gunfire.

Sportscaster Jim McKay, provided television viewers with preliminary updates. Just after midnight, a terrorist tossed a hand grenade into one of the helicopters, killing all but one of the Israeli hostages aboard; David Berger, a wrestler who succumbed to smoke inhalation. A second terrorist sprayed the interior of the second helicopter with bullets, murdering the five remaining Israelis.

A terrorist ran toward a position where one of the helicopter pilots and a police sniper had taken cover but was shot. However the movement on the darkened runway drew fire from an armoured car and both the pilot and sniper were seriously wounded. By 0030 on September 6, the shooting had stopped and the 20-hour reign of terror was over. Eleven Israelis had been killed, along with one police officer. Five terrorists lay dead with three captured. At 0300 McKay, summarized the tragic outcome of the botched rescue with the words “They’re all gone.”

Avilov honours dead with Decathlon Gold

The decathlon was the event that reopened the Olympic Games after the massacre and so it carried a somber responsibility. The world had been shocked by the deaths; now it wanted solace through this, perhaps the toughest of all Olympic competitions. The intention was to honour the dead and to show that terror could not overcome the Olympic spirit. And so it was proven, as the decathlon lived up to its billing and produced a memorable contest with an outstanding central performance.

In sport, while you can train for years, or boast remarkable natural talent, sometimes you have to rely on the whims of fate in the effort to win the gold. A classic contest had been shaping up in the decathlon. It was very hard to know which of them would prevail. In the end, the Soviet Union’s Mykola Avilov, suddenly found himself with a big lead that he was destined never to relinquish. He set a personal best in eight of the ten events and set a new world record of 8454 in the process.

Marathon victory of Munich’s Shorter

Frank Shorter, born in Munich, became the first from the United States in 64 years to win the marathon in 2:12:19.8. As Shorter was nearing the stadium, a German student entered the stadium, joined the race and ran the last kilometer; thinking he was the winner, the crowd began cheering him before officials realized the hoax. Arriving seconds later, Shorter was perplexed to see someone ahead. This was the third time in the Olympic history that an American had won (after 1904 and 1908) and in none of those three instances did the winner enter the stadium first.

Basketball final – Stolen Glory

In the men’s basketball final, the US lost to the Soviet Union in what is widely considered as the most controversial game in the history. In a closely fought match, the United States team had won by a score of 50-49. However, the final three seconds of the game were replayed thrice until the Soviet Union came out on top and claimed 51- 50. Ultimately, the US refused to accept their silver medals. Despite sworn testimony from the referee and the timekeeper that the Soviet Union victory was illegal, a jury of appeal denied the protest. The 12 silver medals continue to lay unclaimed in a storage in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The author of these lines, recalling the award of a replacement medal to Muhammad Ali at Atlanta 1996, wishes to make a humble request to Thomas Bach, the first Olympic medallist to have risen to the position of IOC President, having won a gold in men’s team foil fencing at the Montreal 1976 Olympics, to intervene in true Olympic spirit and recognize the United States basketball team by awarding their twelve silver medals during Tokyo 2020. Now after 48 years – it is sincerely believed that Kenneth Davis and his team is still alive!

(The author is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018. His research interests encompass Olympic Games, IOC and spectrum of sports extravaganza. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)