Reflecting on the 1972 Munich Olympics
Forty years ago, Palestinian “Black September” terrorists murdered 11 Israeli team members during the Olympic Games in Munich. Although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declined Israel’s request for a moment of silence at this summer’s London games, there are scholars working to ensure that the 1972 tragedy isn’t forgotten.
One such expert is David Clay Large, a professor of history at Montana State University and author of the book Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games.
In May, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon wrote to the IOC on behalf of the widows of two 1972 victims, who called for a specific memorial during the upcoming Olympics. IOC President Jacques Rogge responded that a moment of silence would not be held because the IOC “has officially paid tribute to the memory of the [killed Israeli] athletes on several occasions.”
The same month, Large gave a presentation on the 1972 Munich Olympics at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. In an interview with JNS.org, Large explained that a request for a moment of silence “has been made before a number of times by various groups, and the IOC has always declined.”
“The reasons they give are that the Olympics are above politics, that they should be just about international competition and not drag into this atmosphere the political, social controversies of the day,” Large said. “That is the argument they give, but the Games have always been political, right from the beginning, and none more so than Munich 1972. The IOC should acknowledge reality and acknowledge this event that took place 40 years ago, which was the greatest tragedy to befall the Olympic Games. I think it is hypocrisy on the part of the IOC.”
Set against the backdrop of the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s, Large’s book provides a comprehensive history of the 1972 games, the abduction and the hostages’ tragic deaths after a botched rescue mission by German police. Drawing on a wealth of newly available sources, Large interweaves the political drama surrounding the games with the athletic spectacle in the arena of play.
According to Gabriel Sanders, director of public programs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Large’s presentation was appropriate for several reasons.
“The story of the Munich Olympics is in many ways about Germany’s overcoming its Nazi past, and it is also a story about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the birth of Palestinian national consciousness,” Sanders told JNS.org. “What the book does is it situates the murder of the 11 athletes not only in those contexts but within the context of the Cold War and how the Cold War affected and was affected by Olympic politics.”
Sanders said the Munich Olympics grew in part out of an effort to have an Olympic Games in East and West Berlin at the same time. “The Olympics had this vision of themselves as being a bridge and something that superseded politics.”
Large was in Munich in 1972 while researching his previous book, “Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936.” He did not attend the Olympics but said the tragedy personally affected him.
Security plays a major role in Large’s new book. Large told JNS.org that security has improved significantly at the Olympics since 1972, mainly because enormous amounts of money and effort have been spent on the games. “Along with construction, security has become the preeminent budget item,” he said. “Huge efforts go in to try to protect the games. For the most part those efforts have been successful. There was the bombing in Atlanta in 1996 that resulted in some fatalities, but nothing on the scale of Munich since 1972. We know that for London, they are spending a billion dollars on security alone.”
The conventional wisdom surrounding the Munich tragedy is that the Germans were woefully unprepared. This is only partially true, according to Sanders.
“Germany did change and they wanted to project this demilitarized image of themselves,” Sanders told JNS.org. “They didn’t want to have armed guards. At the same time, they were prepared. It was a tumultuous moment in world history. The Vietnam War was raging and politics had intruded on the 1968 Olympics with the famous black power salute. What the West Germans seemed more worried about was black militants and not Middle Eastern ones. They were prepared, but for the wrong kind of threat.”
Large said the Black September commandos in Munich “wanted to take the Israelis hostages so they could exchange them for Arab prisoners.” They were “willing to kill and ended up doing so, but that resulted from their plan running amuck,” he said.
“There was poor preparation on both sides,” Large explained. “The leaders did not tell the foot soldiers until the last minute what was going on. There was no coherent plan to take the hostages.”
Shortly after the crisis began, the Palestinians demanded the release of 234 prisoners held in Israeli jails. By the end of the ordeals, the kidnappers had killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German police officer. Five of the eight members of Black September were killed by police officers during a failed rescue attempt. In “Operation Wrath of God,” Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered the Mossad to assassinate the three surviving members—who were captured but later released by West Germany after Black September hijacked a Lufthansa plane—and others involved in the Munich massacre. The Mossad assassinated leading Black September figure Ali Hassan Salameh in 1979.
Due to lack of preparation, Large said, the Bavarian police botched the rescue attempt in 1972. Today, things are different. “They had no training or counter-terrorism force, and they didn’t work well together or share information properly,” he said. “We have those things now, and London has them.”
One of the issues still debated is whether Israel offered to help the Bavarian police.
“The Israelis say they offered to send their [counter-terrorism] force right away and the Bavarians said ‘No we can’t have that,'” Large said. “I think the Israeli claim is true and the Bavarians declined it because it would have been embarrassing for them to have to turn matters over to the Israelis. The Bavarians didn’t have a counter-terrorism force at that time and the Israelis had the best force in the world.”
Billed as a way to bring countries together to compete in a peaceful way, Large said the Olympics remain what they have always been—political.
“Events like the Munich tragedy call into question the advisability of enterprises like the Olympics at times of international tension,” Large said. “I’m not sure it makes much sense given what’s going on to put on these big shows. I’m not saying they should be discontinued, but it’s worth having the conversation.”