The 1972 Munich Olympics will forever be associated with the most horrific clash of political values during an Olympiad, one that resulted in the murders of 11 Israeli coaches and athletes at the hands of Palestinian terrorists.
While Iron Curtain Spy-vs-Spy shenanigans had been part and parcel of the Olympics in the 1950s and 1960s, and the rhetoric was heating up as the nuclear arms race injected legitimate fear into the lives of ordinary folks, the venues and facilities of the Olympic Games had been sacrosanct, places off limits to tribal conflict. Countries come together in peace during the Olympics. Heck, Nixon went to China that year! Maybe things were getting better.
And so, in hindsight, we can look back on the security of the 1972 Munich Games and pronounce them horrifically bad by today’s standards. Ollan Cassell was at the Munich Summer Games. Cassell, a gold-medal winning member of the US men’s 4X400 relay track team, was the recently appointed executive director of the then American Athletic Union (AAU), which at the time, was the US body recognized internationally in 14 sports represented at the Olympics. Cassell gave a first-hand account in his book, Inside the Five Ring Circus, how lax the security was in Munich.
At the Munich Games, the ticket takers apparently returned the ticket stubs back to the ticket holder, in essence, giving back the ticket. Perhaps the ticket takers were being nice, thinking that the spectator would want the full ticket as a souvenir and a pleasant memory of their time at the Munich Games. Cassell wrote how he took advantage of that security flaw to get a member of his team into the Opening Ceremonies by going to the fence and handing his ticket stub to his team member, who then easily entered the Olympic stadium with a “valid” ticket.
Not only that, Cassell wrote about how easy the official credentials were to forge. With some care, Cassell wrote of how people created their own credentials to gain access to events more freely than they were initially able to do. He did write about how one person got caught with the fake credentials and was deported, but on the whole, security was filled with holes. Yes, tight security is a pain in the neck. And who knows, maybe the organizers of the Munich Games, perhaps in some way, were trying to overwrite the world’s image of Germany’s last Olympics – the Berlin Games – by prioritizing a relaxed attitude over a vigilant attitude.
But reality slammed home. The Black September terrorists who came to Munich to kill Israelis, took advantage of the security. They had stolen keys that gave them easy entry to the rooms of the Israeli men’s team. They entered the Village grounds in the first place by doing what other athletes did after curfew – by climbing the fence. The thought that terrorists would break into the Village was so remote that other Olympic athletes apparently helped the Palestinians in. There was criticism as well for the German authorities who struggled to contain the hostage crisis, and were, in hindsight, poorly prepared to handle this armed conflict. And yet, they were poorly prepared because they did not believe such a thing could happen at their Olympics.
The rhetoric of geo-political spats gave way shockingly to savagery and death at the Olympics. And security at the Olympics would be changed forever.