Partying and pain in Munich on tragic day in 1972
It began as a glorious late summer’s day – clear blue sky,
shorts and shirt-sleeve kind of weather. Sunlight twinkled off the
acrylic glass at the Olympic stadium. Tourists lounged beneath the
umbrellas of outdoor cafes, chatting and sipping beer.
The scene in Munich’s Olympic Park on Sept. 5, 1972, was idyllic
– except for a helicopter from the German border police circling
over buildings of the nearby village where the athletes lived.
If you shaded your eyes, squinted against the blinding sunlight
and knew where to look, you could just make out the images of armed
uniformed German police standing on the buildings. Turn away and
the horror of what was unfolding seemed to disappear.
Forty years later, the stark images of what became known as the
Munich Massacre remain seared in my memory.
Eight Palestinian gunmen from the Black September organization
had broken into the Olympic Village. There they seized 11 Israeli
athletes, coaches and officials in their apartments.
Two of the hostages were slain in the first moments. By the end
of the day, the nine other Israeli hostages and all but three of
the gunmen would be dead. The stain of that terrible day would
remain for decades – on the city of Munich, on German officials and
on the Olympic movement’s leadership, which tried to downplay the
My wife and I were there, among the tens of thousands of people
who had come to Munich that day to take part in what the Germans
had advertised as the ”friendly Olympics.”
We’d heard about the hostage-taking on Armed Forces Radio before
leaving our home in Augsburg, a city just northwest of Munich where
I was stationed in the U.S. Army. We decided to go anyway. We’d won
discount tickets for a soccer match in a lottery for American
soldiers and had planned to attend with two other couples.
There had been no announcement that events would be canceled. As
a lieutenant I was earning less than $500 a month, and we didn’t
want to waste the price of the ticket, even at discount rates.
Once we got there, the decision seemed a wise one. Despite the
tension around the building where the hostages were being held,
everywhere else things seemed pretty normal. At the Olympic Park,
there were no security checkpoints, no looks of fear or
apprehension among the crowd and no sense of alarm – except around
the athletes’ quarters. And those were off limits to spectators
A few policemen ambled among the crowds. But there were no signs
of the extra security that today, in the post-9/11 world, is
standard and expected.
In an era before the Internet, before smartphones and before
24-hour news cycles, there was little tension in the air. No one
was huddling over a radio trying to follow events. The only sign of
trouble, apart from that helicopter and armed police on the
rooftop, was a bold-faced headline on a German tabloid that
screamed: ”Geiselnahme,” or ”Hostage Taking.”
But for people who didn’t know German, it was hard to find a
clue that anything was wrong. And that’s the way the chairman of
the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, wanted it.
The 84-year-old philanthropist and art collector resisted calls
to suspend the games and hoped the German authorities could resolve
the crisis quickly and without more bloodshed. As hours passed with
no resolution, the party outside the Olympic Village rolled on.
Coming less than 30 years after World War II ended, the choice
of Munich as a venue had been controversial from the outset. More
than most German cities, Munich had been closely associated with
the rise of the Nazi Party. The first concentration camp, Dachau,
was located on Munich’s outskirts, and the Israeli team had visited
the site just before the opening ceremony.
It was the first time Germany had hosted the Summer Games since
1936 Olympics in Berlin, which were presided over by a confident
and increasingly menacing Adolf Hitler. Hoping for redemption, the
Germans had promoted a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Now, the
image of Jewish athletes with their lives at risk threatened to
destroy all that.
As the sun began to set, the crowd shuffled into the Olympic
stadium to watch the soccer match: West Germany vs. Hungary.
Everything seemed on track as the 80,000-seat venue began to fill.
As we awaited the start of the match, an announcement echoed over
the loudspeakers. With groans of complaint, people began getting up
”It’s canceled,” a German told me. ”But you can get a new
With properly stamped rain checks in hand, we headed back to the
car and on to a beer garden downtown for dinner. The scene was
packed with Olympic partygoers hoisting enormous steins of
Hours later, we drove along the autobahn to Augsburg, making
plans to attend the makeup game. We pulled into a rest stop to
stretch our legs. In the distance, toward Fuerstenfeldbruck air
base, we saw flashes of light. We assumed it was heat
But looking back, and judging from the hour – around 11 p.m. –
the flashes must have been the battle in which the Israelis all
died. The Germans persuaded the gunmen to fly with their hostages
by helicopter to the air base, where they would board a plane to an
Instead, the Germans had laid an ambush. Five German snipers lay
in wait around the tarmac.
In the darkness, the snipers failed to kill their targets. The
gunmen fired back. One of them tossed a grenade into the helicopter
where some of the hostages were bound and blindfolded. The other
Israelis were raked with machine gun fire. Five of the Palestinians
died in the gun battle; three were captured alive.
Brundage refused to cancel the rest of the games, and we
returned for the makeup match. Hungary beat Germany 4-1 and went on
to claim the silver medal. Jewish athletes from other countries
were evacuated for their own security.
Athletically, there was much to remember about the 1972 Summer
Games: American swimmer Mark Spitz’s record seven gold medals; the
emergence of Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut on the world stage; Frank
Shorter becoming the first American to win the Olympic marathon in
64 years; and a controversial 50-49 loss by the Americans to the
Soviets in basketball.
Instead the 1972 Summer Games will always be remembered as ”the
Less than two months after the killings, the three surviving
gunmen were released and flown to Libya in exchange for the
passengers and crew of a Lufthansa flight hijacked in the Middle
The Israelis, meanwhile, were organizing Operation Wrath of God,
which tracked down and assassinated dozens of Palestinian militants
linked to the killing, including two of the three surviving hostage
takers. The third, Jamal al-Gashey, eluded the dragnet and remains
at large today. He is believed to be hiding in either North Africa
Suspected Israeli agents did manage to track down the
self-proclaimed mastermind, Abu Daoud. He was cornered in a Warsaw
hotel in 1981 and shot 13 times. He managed to survive, and died
nearly 30 years later of kidney disease in Syria.
For the Olympic movement itself, the events of Sept. 5, 1972,
were a jarring reminder that, despite the dreams of its founders,
international sport cannot be separated from global politics.
Four decades later, security has become as integral a part of
the games as the athletes, spectators and media. The British expect
to spend more than $1.6 billion to protect this summer’s games,
roughly what the Greeks spent in Athens in 2004 and the Chinese in
Beijing in 2008.
All the legacy of the Munich Massacre, a long-ago day that
changed the Olympic Games forever.
EDITOR’S NOTE – Robert H. Reid has been a foreign correspondent
for The Associated Press since 1977.