1972 Munich, Germany

The 1972 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XX Olympiad, was held in Munich, West Germany, from August 26 to September 5, 1972, the sporting nature of which was largely overshadowed by a terrorist attack in which 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, a West German police officer, and five terrorists were killed.

The 1972 Summer Olympics were the second Summer Olympics to be held in Germany, after the 1936 Games in Berlin, which had taken place under the Nazi regime.

Mindful of the connection, the West German Government was anxious to take the opportunity of the Munich Olympics to present a new, democratic and optimistic Germany to the world, as shown by the Games’ official motto, “the Happy Games.” The emblem of the Games was a blue solar logo (the “Bright Sun”) by Hungarian artist Viktor Vasarely. The Olympic mascot, the dachshund”Waldi”, was the first officially named Olympic mascot. The Games also saw the introduction of the now-universal sports pictograms designed by Otl Aicher.

The Olympic Park (Olympiapark) is based on Frei Otto’s plans and after the Games became a Munich landmark. The competition sites, designed by architect Günther Behnisch, included the Olympic swimming hall, the Olympics Hall (Olympiahalle, a multipurpose facility) and the Olympic Stadium (Olympiastadion), and an Olympic village very close to the park. The design of the stadium was considered revolutionary, with sweeping canopies of acrylic glass stabilized by metal ropes, used on such a large scale for the first time.

The Munich Massacre

The Games were largely overshadowed by what has come to be known as the Munich massacre. On September 5 a group of eight Palestinian guerrillas belonging to the Black September organization broke into the Olympic Village and took nine Israeli athletes, coaches and officials hostage in their apartments. Two of the hostages who resisted were killed in the first moments of the break-in; the subsequent standoff in the Olympic Village lasted for almost 18 hours.

Late in the evening of September 5, the terrorists and their hostages were transferred by helicopter to the military airport of Fürstenfeldbruck, ostensibly to board a plane bound for an undetermined Arab country. The German authorities planned to ambush them there, but under-estimated the number of terrorists and were thus undermanned. During a botched rescue attempt, all of the Israeli hostages were killed. Four of them were shot, then incinerated when a Palestinian detonated a grenade inside the helicopter in which the hostages were sitting. The five remaining hostages were then machine-gunned by another terrorist.

All but three of the Palestinians were killed as well. Although arrested and imprisoned pending trial, the three PLO survivors were released by the West German government on October 29, 1972 in exchange for a hijacked Lufthansa jet. Two of those three were supposedly hunted down and assassinated later by the Mossad. Jamal Al-Gashey, who is believed to be the sole survivor, and is still living today in hiding in an unspecified African country with his wife and two children.

The Olympic events were suspended several hours after the initial attack, but once the incident was concluded Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee president, declared that “the Games must go on”. A memorial ceremony was then held in the Olympic stadium, and the competitions resumed after a stoppage of 24 hours. The attack prompted heightened security at subsequent Olympics beginning with the 1976 Winter Olympics.

The massacre led the German federal government to re-examine its anti-terrorism policies, which at the time were dominated by a pacifist approach adopted post-World War II. This led to the creation of the elite counter-terrorist unitGSG 9, similar to the British SAS. It also led Israel to launch an aggressive counterterrorism campaign known as Operation Wrath of God, in which those suspected of involvement were systematically tracked down and assassinated.

The events of the Munich massacre were chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary, One Day in September. An account of the aftermath is dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich.

Highlights of the Munich Olympics

ñMark Spitz, a swimmer from the United States, set a world record when he won seven gold medals (while on the way to setting a new world record for each of his seven gold medals) in a single Olympics, bringing his lifetime total to nine (he had won two golds in Mexico City’s Games four years earlier). Being Jewish, Spitz was forced to leave Munich before the closing ceremonies for his own protection, after fears arose that he would be an additional target of those responsible for the Munich massacre. Spitz’s record stood until 2008, when it was beaten by Michael Phelps who won 8 gold medals in the pool.

ñOlga Korbut, a Soviet gymnast, became a media star after winning a gold medal in the team competition event, failing to win in the individual all-around after a fall (she was beaten by Lyudmilla Turischeva), and finally winning two gold medals in the Balance Beam and the floor exercise events.

ñIn the final of the men’s basketball, the United States lost to the USSR, in what USA Basketball calls “the most controversial game in international basketball history”. In a close-fought match the U.S. team initially believed it had won with a score of 50–49, but confusion over a late time-out gave the Soviet team a few seconds to score two more points and claim victory. Ultimately the U.S team refused to accept their silver medals, which remain held in a vault in Lausanne, Switzerland.

ñLasse Virén of Finland won the 5,000 and 10,000 m (the latter after a fall), a feat he repeated in the 1976 Summer Olympics.

ñValeriy Borzov of the USSR won both the 100 m and 200 m in track and field. The top two US sprinters and medal favorites in the 100 m, Rey Robinson and Eddie Hart, missed their quarter final heats after being given the wrong starting time.

ñTwo black American 400 m runners, Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, acted casually on the medal stand, twirled their medals (gold and silver, respectively), joked with one another and did not face the American flag as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was being played during the award ceremony. They were banned from the Olympics for life, as Tommie Smith and John Carlos had been in the 1968 Summer Olympics. Since John Smith had pulled a hamstring in the final and had been ruled unfit to run, the United States were forced to scratch from the 4x400m relay.

ñDave Wottle won the men’s 800 m, after being last for the first 600 m, at which point he started to pass runner after runner up the final straightaway, finally grabbing the lead in the final 18 metres to win by 0.03 seconds ahead of the favorite, the Soviet Yevgeny Arzhanov. At the victory ceremony, Wottle forgot to remove his golf cap. This was interpreted by some as a form of protest against the Vietnam War, but Wottle later apologized.

ñAustralian swimmer Shane Gould won three gold medals, a silver, and a bronze medal at the age of 15.

ñHandball (last held in 1936) and Archery (last held in 1920) returned as Olympic sports after a long absence.

ñSlalom canoeing was held for the first time at the Olympics.

ñDan Gable won the gold medal in wrestling without having a single point scored against him.

ñWim Ruska became the first judoka to win two gold medals.

ñFor the first time, the Olympic Oath was taken by a representative of the referees.

ñAmerican Frank Shorter, who was born in Munich, became the first from his country in 64 years to win the Olympic marathon. As Shorter was nearing the stadium, German student Norbert Sudhaus entered the stadium wearing a track uniform, joined the race and ran the last kilometre; thinking he was the winner, the crowd began cheering him before officials realized the hoax and security escorted Sudhaus off the track. Arriving seconds later, Shorter was understandably perplexed to see someone ahead of him and to hear the boos and catcalls meant for Sudhaus. This was the third time in Olympic history that an American had won the marathon (after Thomas Hicks 1904 and Johnny Hayes 1908) — and in none of those three instances did the winner enter the stadium first.

ñBadminton and water skiing were demonstration sports.

Eleven nations made their first Olympic appearance in Munich: Albania, Burkina Faso (as Upper Volta), Benin (as Dahomey), Gabon, North Korea, Lesotho, Malawi, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Swaziland, Togo.

Rhodesia’s invitation to take part in the 1972 Summer Games was withdrawn by the International Olympic Committee four days before the opening ceremony, in response to African countries’ protests against the Rhodesian regime. (Rhodesia did, however, compete in the 1972 Summer Paralympics, held a little earlier in Heidelberg.)