During the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany, eight terrorists disguised in tracksuits, carrying gym bags filled with assault rifles and hand grenades, breached the Olympic Village security. Just before dawn on September 5th, Black September terrorists of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), managed to enter the building where Israeli athletes were sleeping. Once inside, they murdered one athlete and one coach, taking 9 others hostage.
Thanks to press coverage of the Olympics, audiences around the world watched in horror as the nightmare unfolded on live television. More than 900 million watched the terrorist attack unfold on their home TVs. Terrorists armed with assault weapons wearing black ski masks patrolled the apartment balcony. It was the first time a terrorist act took place during an Olympic games.
Black September demanded the release of 234 Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails, and negotiations took an agonizing 23 hours. When authorities finally attempted a botched rescue attempt, all nine hostages were killed by the terrorists, along with five Black September members and one West German police officer. How could such a thing have happened during an Olympics, the symbol of world peace through athletics?
The 1972 Munich Olympic Games were supposed to be joyous.
West Germany was set to celebrate an international sporting festival of peace. Over a quarter century after World War II had been unleashed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, West Germany wanted to present itself as a modern, democratic state. Reminders of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, with its heavy Nazi propaganda, were a distant memory.
Less than 30 years after the Holocaust, when approximately 6 million Jews were murdered in Nazi Death Camps, Israel was going to the Munich Olympics with its biggest team ever. The significance was not lost on anyone. Several of the older team officials were Eastern Europeans, still bearing the arm tattoos from Nazi concentration camps.
The West German government wanted to downplay any military presence. Hailing the event as “The Games of Peace and Joy,” they avoided uniformed soldiers and police for unarmed guards. Israeli officials voiced concerns about the obvious lack of security at the Games. Nevertheless, Munich introduced the first-ever Olympic mascot, the dachshund “Waldi,” and its official motto, “The Cheerful Games.”
It certainly started out that way. American swimmer Mark Spitz, with his thick black mustache won 7 gold medals, setting world records in all seven of his events. He became the undisputed star of the Munich games. The image of Spitz with 7 gold medals on his bare chest was everywhere. It was a feat that stood for decades, surpassed only by American Michael Phelps at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.
The excitement continued with the surprising Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut. The sixteen year old “Sparrow from Minsk” came out of nowhere and soared to three gold medals in the balance beam, floor exercise, and team competition. Her acrobatic and athletic show helped revolutionize women’s gymnastics, ushering in a new era of popularity. Every little girl in the world wanted to be Olga Korbut.
Lastly, there was the infamous men’s basketball final game. The US team of college stars suffered its first-ever loss in the final seconds, by 1 point to the Soviet Union, at the height of the Cold War. The game remains one of the most controversial in Olympic history due to multiple questionable calls in the last few seconds. The US team boycotted the medal ceremony and still refuses to claim silver.
For 10 days, the Munich Summer Games continued and were indeed joyous and cheerful. But behind the scenes, there were still questions regarding lax security. The early 1970s were overshadowed by numerous airplane hijackings by terrorists. The Munich police could have been better prepared for what was to come.
The Summer Games came to an abrupt the morning of September 5th.
On Monday evening, the Israeli athletes enjoyed a night out, watching a performance of Fiddler on the Roof, then dining out with the Israeli star of the musical, before returning to the Olympic Village. At 4:35 am early Tuesday morning, 8 members of the Black September terrorist group, disguised as athletes, scaled a chain link fence and entered the village.
They forced their way into the Israeli athletes’ quarters, apartments 1 and 3. Two team members, weightlifter Yossef Romano and wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg, attempted to fight back, only to be shot and killed. The terrorists collected nine other Israeli team members as hostages, tightly binding their hands and feet. Following the shots, chaos erupted at the Olympic village and the Munich police were called.
Black September demanded the release of 234 Palestinians and Arabs imprisoned in Israeli jails. To prove their intent, they tossed the bullet-ridden body of Weinberg out the main door onto the street. They kept the bloody body of Romano at the feet of the athletes as a grim reminder to remain submissive. The terrorists set a 9AM deadline for release of the political prisoners. Failure to meet it, they said, would result in 1 hostage being executed every hour.
Thanks to the Olympic TV and press coverage, soon the entire world knew.
The image of black masked kidnappers with assault rifles quickly spread across the globe. Munich’s law enforcement was woefully unprepared. They were trained for everyday crimes, not military trained terrorists. With no counter-terror unit, the West German government took control of the negotiations, along with Munich’s Police Chief Manfred Schreiber. But they did not have a cohesive plan. Hours of negotiation ensued, with much of the drama unfolding on live television.
West German negotiators were inclined to give in to the terrorist demands, but Israel leaders in Tel Aviv adamantly refused, stating there would be absolutely NO negotiations.
“If we should give in, then no Israeli anywhere in the world can feel that his life is safe.”Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir
At one point in the day, a Munich policewoman was used as an intermediary with the lead terrorist, Luttif Afif, who called himself ‘Issa.’ The two could be seen on live TV, Issa confidently standing in a doorway, leaning against the frame in a white hat and sunglasses. He shared cigarettes with the policewoman, dressed in civilian clothes, wearing a dress and sports jacket.
The terrorists rejected a German counteroffer of an unlimited amount of money. Responding back, ”Money and our lives mean nothing to us.” The Libyan and Tunisian ambassadors to Germany, as well as Egyptian members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were brought in. They succeeded in getting Black September to extend their deadline a total of five times, without further deaths.
At one point, two of the Israeli hostages were allowed to appear on a second floor window to prove they were still alive. But when one tried to answer a question from German police, a terrorist clubbed him in the head with the the butt of his rifle. The rest of the Israeli team quickly left Munich, as did Jewish-American swimmer Mark Spitz.
At the same time, the media provided the terrorists with valuable information on TV. West German authorities forgot to switch off electricity to the apartments and failed to remove the foreign press contingent from the Olympic Village. That meant that the terrorists were able to watch on TV how the police and snipers were positioned all around them. The poor hostages, closely trapped with them, must have realized there was no hope for rescue or release.
Finally at 4:30 pm, a squad of Munich police arrived at the Olympic Village disguised in sweat suits.
Their plan was to crawl down from ventilation shafts and kill the terrorists. However, camera crews followed the officers and broadcast the images live on TV. The terrorists were able to watch the police preparation live from the couches in the apartments. Issa was furious and threatened to kill two of the hostages if they did not withdraw immediately. The police retreated.
With negotiations failing, Black September shifted their demands and asked for transport to Cairo with the hostages. It seemed as though German authorities agreed to the terrorists’ demands and it was here TV coverage ended. Two military transport helicopters were brought to the Village. They flew the terrorists and hostages 15 miles to the nearby Fürstenfeldbruck NATO Air Base, where a 727 jet airplane was waiting.
It was there a second rescue was attempted. Unfortunately, only five police snipers were deployed as the German authorities still didn’t know the exact number of PLO terrorists. The snipers were inadequately trained for such an operation, poorly equipped with the wrong rifles, and had no radio contact with each other. The two helicopters landed in the dark at 10:30pm. The Bavarian Interior Minister then ordered the snipers to open fire.
The terrorists scrambled beneath the helicopters and returned fire, killing Anton Fliegerbauer, a German sniper. The 2 helicopter pilots managed to escape in the melee. Armored personnel carriers had been stuck in traffic and arrived late. When the attack vehicles rolled in, Issa shouted in anger and threw a hand grenade into one of the helicopters. The explosion incinerated the still bound hostages and destroyed the aircraft. The terrorists then riddled the Israeli athletes bound in the other helicopter with bullets.
The nine victims were wrestling referee Yossef Gutfreund, sharpshooting coach Kehat Shorr, track and field coach Amitzur Shapira, fencing master Andre Spitzer, weightlifting judge Yakov Springer, wrestlers Eliezer Halfin and Mark Slavin, and weightlifters David Berger and Ze’ev Friedman.
When the shooting ended, the leader Luttif Afif (Issa) and four other terrorists were also dead. Three surrendered and were captured alive by the police. West German spokesman Conrad Ahlers declared that the hostage operation had been a success. But hours later, the world found out the truth about the failed rescue attempt and the death of ALL 9 hostages.
The tragedy cast a dark shadow over what had been the memorably “Cheerful Games.” The Summer Games were put on hold for 34 hours. A memorial ceremony, attended by 3,000 athletes and 80,000 spectators, was conducted at the Olympic Stadium on September 6th with all nation flags flying at half- mast. The IOC president, Avery Brundage, then proclaimed: “The Games must go on!“
The deadly operation gave the PLO a worldwide audience and made them a household name, ushering in a new era of bold global terrorism. Sadly, 3 weeks after the massacre, the 3 captured assassins were released as part of the hijack negotiations of German Lufthansa flight 615. The trio was flown to Libya where they received a hero’s welcome. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir set up a covert unit within Israel’s Mossad agency to hunt down and eliminate all those involved in the Munich Massacre. She called it Operation Wrath of God.
Several terrorist suspects were assassinated in the coming months throughout Europe and the Middle East. Black September’s Head Ali Hassan Salameh, was assassinated by car bomb in 1979 in the operation’s final mission. Mohammed Daoud Odeh, who masterminded the deadly assault, fled to Syria and died of cancer in Damascus in 2010.
The way the terrorists were so easily able to access to the village would forever change Olympic security protocols. Four years later, at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, the Israeli team commemorated their fallen at the Olympic stadium Opening Ceremony when they entered carrying the Israeli flag adorned with 9 long, black ribbons.
The massacre has been the subject of a number of books and films, including one by Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, who used it, and the subsequent Mossad assassinations, in his 2005 film, “Munich.” Forty-four years later, the IOC finally commemorated the victims before the 2016 Rio Summer Games. We should do the same at ALL future Olympic Games.