In the dead of night, 11 Olympic athletes slept for the last time, unaware of the eight men coming for them. Less than 24 hours later, 17 of those involved would be dead and the world’s perception of terrorism forever changed.
This article observes the 50th anniversary of the 1972 “Munich Massacre” at the Olympic Games.
In 1948, Israel was recognized as a nation of its own, resulting in conflict and wars with the Palestinians, many of which became refugees after Israel’s recognition. Their cause went largely ignored – until the 1972 attack.
The attack began at 4 a.m. on Sept. 5 as eight members of Black September, a group affiliated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), made their way to the target hotel armed with rifles and grenades.
Their aim, which ultimately failed, was to hold Israeli athletes hostage until two leaders of the West German Baader-Meinhof terrorist group and more than 200 prisoners in Israel were released. They also wanted a plane to the Middle East.
Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano fought back and were killed, leaving Black September with nine hostages.
Andre Spitzer, coach of the Israeli fencing team, would die too, leaving a painful memory for his wife Ankie Spitzer 50 years later.
“I was only married one year and three months to Andre. We were a young couple, very much in love with a small baby. We were on top of the world,” Ankie said.
According to NPR’s article, seven hours into the hostage situation, events were halted and news coverage began, making it “the first time a terrorist incident had reached a global audience during a live broadcast.”
Authorities struggled to respond.
They were made aware of other potential threats, but they did not expect an attack from a Palestinian group. This resulted in the authorities letting their guard down when no incident occurred in the Olympics’ first 10 days. Compounding this was leaving the matter in the hands of state authorities as they had no hostage training. Following West Germany’s postwar constitution, the domestic use of their army was not an option.
After failed negotiations, the authorities hatched a plan – to give Black September their plane while having police officers pretend to be the crew before overpowering the assailants. The assigned officers decided it was too dangerous and backed out.
However, the plan was already in motion.
Scrambling to improvise and lacking expert snipers, the police posted their best marksmen in hopes of taking out the terrorists despite not knowing how many there were.
David Clay Large, the author of Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games, called the result of these plans a disaster.
“The attempt to pick off these commandos turned out to be an absolute fiasco,” Large says. “They ended up shooting five of the eight commandos, but not before the commandos then killed in cold blood the remaining nine hostages.”
A policeman was also killed, and three members of Black September escaped, briefly.
At 3:24 a.m. Sept. 6, Jim McKay, an ABC sportscaster who anchored the coverage that day, announced: “They’re all gone.”
The event, which is believed to have had an audience of about 900 million, changed the perception of terrorism on both sides of the aisle.
“I think other aggrieved persons saw terrorism as a vehicle to attract attention to themselves and their cause and also coerce governments,” Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said.
Hoffman also noted the increase in active terrorist groups, from about 11 in 1968, up to more than 50, “a few years after the Munich massacre.”
On the domestic side, the U.S. was caught up in the Cold War. Ronit Berger Hobson, lecturer in politics and international relations at Queen’s University Belfast, explains what governments thought.
“If Germany suffered such a gruesome, huge attack and failed so colossally, then we could be next. So, we better prepare,” Hobson said.
In the meantime, the games were ordered to continue, else the terrorists would win.
There were several other athletic stories at the Olympics that year, including Oklahoma Christian University’s own 1970 graduate Jeff Bennett.
Bennett, 24 at the time, competed in the decathlon a few days after the terrorist events and would take 4th, missing the podium by just 10 points. Later in life, Bennett would return to Oklahoma Christian to help coach the track and field team until retiring in 2021.