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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.

inside-five-ring-circus-coverAt 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.

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Increased security at the Montreal Olympics in 1976

 

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John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Today in Japan, it is December 9, but in the US, it is still December 8, the day John Lennon was murdered, the day the music died.

On the closing day of the Munich Olympics in 1972, the torch was extinguished, the lingering waves of joy of Olympic competition and camaraderie merging with countervailing waves of sadness. Eleven Israeli athletes had been killed by the hand of terrorists. According to the book, Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience, athletes left the closing ceremony and gathered in the Olympic Village. And as the athletes struggled with their mixed and roiling emotions, a song by John Lennon unified them all.

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At the John Lennon memorial event at Central Park on December 14, 1980_photo taken by Roy Tomizawa
Following the closing ceremony, the athletes returned to the Village and converged on the discotheque. John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ was played several times with its poignant relevance. Fencer Susie Murphy’s overriding memory of Munich was a touchingly united scene with athletes of all nations singing along to Lennon in one unified voice, arms round each other’s shoulders, in defiance of the atrocity.

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West German policemen wearing sweatsuits, bullet-proof vests and armed with submachine guns, take up positions on September 5, 1972 on Olympic Village rooftops where armed Palestinians were holding Israeli team members hostage

The terrorist attacks on Paris last month are still likely jagged memories for many. I shudder to think of what could have been if the suicide bomber had successfully made her way into the Stade de France during the football match between the French and German national teams.

The singular most horrific terrorist attack in an Olympic Games are when eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and killed during the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, Germany. A Palestinian group called Black September, a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) smuggled rifles, pistols and grenades into the Olympic Village on September 5, 1972, before dawn, while athletes slept.

Details of those events have been depicted in articles, books and film. But until recently, the level of cruelty the Israeli athletes suffered had not been known, according to this New York Times article. The reporter explains that German authorities had hundreds of pages of reports depicting the 20-hours the athletes were held hostage, but until recently denied they had existed.

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Six of the 11 Israeli hostages killed by the Palestinian ‘Black September’ cell at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Yossef Romano, the torture victim, is top center

The families of victims were actually aware of these reports and never-released photos of the massacre since 1992. A documentary called “Munich 72 & Beyond” will be released in early 2016.

Munich-1972-Beyond

The International Olympic Committee has had a long, uneasy relationship with families of the Munich victims. According to this New York Times article, they have been lobbying the IOC for official recognition of those killed during the Munich Olympics. They are hoping that the IOC will create awareness of that day in September to the Games in August, 2016, in Rio.

In fact, progress has been made and a memorial will be built in Germany, very near the building where the Israeli athletes were taken hostage. The memorial, which will open to the public in September, 2016, is being funded by the local Bavarian government, the German federal government, as well as the IOC and the Foundation for Global Sports Development.

Perhaps progress has been due to a change in IOC leadership in 2013. The current IOC head is Thomas Bach, a German. In addition to the memorial in Germany, Bach announced there will also be a memorial erected in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games.

“We want to give the athletes the opportunity to express their mourning in a dignified way and environment in the Olympic Village where representatives of the whole world are living peacefully under the same roof,” (Bach) said. “At the Closing Ceremony, the Games come to an end and many people feel that it is a moment to remember people who have died at the Olympic Games.”