Willi Daume, President of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) and the former Mayor of Munich, Hans-Jochen Vogel, worked hard to bring the Olympic Summer Games to Munich in 1972. On 26th April 1966, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that they had decided on Munich as a venue. This decision brought extensive construction activity which is still a part of the city of Munich to this day. An extensive park with modern sports facilities and living accommodation was created in the north of the city on sites still strewn with rubble from the Second World War. At the same time, the development of the underground network was accelerated in order to transport the expected masses of visitors. In spring 1972, the Munich Olympic Stadium was opened with an international football game.
The last time the Olympic Games were previously held in Germany was in 1936 – in Berlin, under the flag of National Socialism. The NS regime used the Olympic Games for its propaganda and to demonstrate its own claim to wold power. It presented itself as peace-loving and cloaked the unjust character of the NS leaders. Anti-Semitic behaviour, such as the distribution of anti-Semitic inflammatory writing, was forbidden at the time. However, at the same time as the huge sporting event, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp was being constructed before the Berlin gates.
In 1972, the aim was to distance themselves from the propaganda games of the National Socialists. Nothing should remind people of the horrors of National Socialism. They should be ‘cheerful games’, the Federal Republic of Germany wanted to present itself to the world as an open, friendly democracy. So the design for the games was in pastel tones, a dachshund was chosen as a mascot and there was a conscious decision to do away with a visibly armed and uniformed police presence during the games.
The political situation in the Federal Republic of Germany and other parts of the world at the time of the games was tense: in May, the attacks by the Red Army faction of the republic had caused a stir, the Vietnam War raged on in Asia and the armed conflict between militant Palestinian groups and Israel was at a peak. Despite some warnings, hardly anybody assumed an actual risk for the Israeli delegation ahead of the games – neither on the German nor the Israeli side. One of the few to express concerns in regard to accommodating the Israeli athletes was Shmuel Lalkin, the head of the Israeli delegation. Lalkin emphasised the increased risk of danger, as some apartments were on the ground floor. His fears were not shared in the responsible ministry in Jerusalem. Those responsible for the Israelis did not respond to the offer from organisers to select their own accommodation.
On 26th August 1972, the XXth Olympic Summer Games were opened with a ceremony in Munich. 80,000 viewers attended the opening ceremony in the Munich Olympic Stadium. Many more stood in front of the stadium or followed the ceremony live on television or on the radio. Over 7,000 athletes from 121 countries entered the stadium to celebratory music – a new record.
The Israeli delegation consisted of 27 members and was therefore the largest the country had ever sent. 15 Israeli athletes were to face athletes from across the world in the disciplines of athletics, fencing, weightlifting, wrestling, shooting, swimming and sailing.
On the day of the opening ceremony, the first competitions were held, largely in Munich. The sports of sailing and water skiing took place in Kiel and canoeing could be marvelled at on the Augsburg ice canal.
The swimmer from the USA Mark Spitz made sporting history in Munich: when he climbed out of the pool on 4th September he had won his seventh gold medal. The Federal Republic of Germany ranked behind the Soviet Union in the medal table in 1972, the USA and the GDR were in fourth place. The Israeli athletes had not won a single medal by the evening of 4th September.
In the morning hours of 5th September, eight members of the Palestinian group ‘Black September’ forced their way into the apartment of the Israeli team, where they murdered Moshe Weinberg and Yossef Romano and took nine further athletes hostage. While the hostages trembled for their lives, a few hundred meters away the ‘friendly games’ carried on. There were celebrations among the German boxers: two athletes had qualified for the semi-final and therefore achieved at least bronze medals. It was only on the afternoon of 5th September that the sporting events were cancelled. Before this there were spontaneous demonstrations against continuing the games.
Detailed information about the hostage-taking can be found under ‘Hostage-taking and police operation’ and ‘The hostages’.
After the failed attempt to free the hostages and their deaths in Fürstenfeldbruck, the main memorial service for the murdered Israeli athletes took place in the Olympic Stadium on 6th September instead of the planned competitions. The head of the Israeli delegation, Shmuel Lalkin, spoke of the “barbaric desecration of the Olympic Games” by “terrorists”. German Federal President Gustav Heinemann condemned the murders and held “all countries who do not stop terrorists in their actions” responsible. However, the Olympic ideal to hold a global sporting event beyond all political differences was not broken. IOC President Avery Brundage followed previous speakers with a sentence that would go down in history: “The games must go on”. The audience applauded. The rumour that the competitions would continue had already spread among the athletes before the memorial ceremony. The games continued – without Israel. While the other nations revelled in the medals of their athletes, the remaining Israeli delegation took the coffins of their murdered team mates home on 7th September.
On 11th September 1972, the Olympic Games in Munich came to an end. Due to the massacre, the joyful closing ceremony was cancelled. Stadium speaker Joachim Fuchsberger stated: “The XXth Olympic Games began joyously – and ended seriously.”
As the flag bearers did a round of the sold out Olympic Stadium, one of the 121 flags from the opening ceremony was missing: the Israeli one. After the Olympic flame had been extinguished, the 60,000 viewers stood to remember the murdered athletes. IOC President Avery Brundage thanked the city of Munich for its hospitality and solidarity during the difficult times.
The 1972 Summer Games and their architecture continue to characterise the city of Munich to this day. However, initially, there was hardly any publicly visible reminder of the hostage taking and murder of the Israeli athletes.
Further information about the memorial work can be found under ‘Post history’.
Authors: Dominik Aufleger, Anna Greithanner, Robert Wolff