40 Years After the Munich Massacre

The International Olympic Committee earned plenty of scorn — deserved, I think — for its refusal in London this summer to commemorate the 11 Israeli athletes slain during the 1972 Munich Games, not least of all from some of the widows.

Political sensitivities obviously informed that decision, and persistent claims of West German appeasement of Palestinian terrorist interests have grown as a milestone anniversary approaches.

It was 40 years ago today that the athletes were taken captive in their quarters at the Olympic Village. Official ceremonies will be held today in the Munich suburb of F├╝rstenfeldbruck, at an airfield where the athletes were murdered in helicopters by Palestinian terrorists.

IOC boss Jacques Rogge will not be on hand for the observances, as he is recovering from hip replacement surgery. How convenient.

As much as the IOC may want the whole matter to pass into history, Munich simply cannot. It remains fresh, relevant and confounding. New documents released by the Israeli government last week expressed a high level of disgust that the West German government did little to save the lives of the athletes.

As Alexander Wolff wrote for Sports Illustrated 10 years ago, on the 30th anniversary, “to revisit the Munich attack is to go slack-jawed at the official lassitude and incompetence, and to realize how much has changed” regarding security for major events such as the Olympics.

These were first Olympics I recall watching as an 11-year-old, riveted that a whole new world of sports — the world, in fact — had been opened to me.

Then the real world, the ugly one concocted by cold-blooded international political assassins, intruded. The phrase “Black September” got mixed up with references to Olga Korbut, Mark Spitz and Frank Shorter.

The gold medal USA-USSR basketball game remains notorious in this country, and the image of Alexander Belov’s basket is still hard to shake. But nothing like the photos and television shots of a terrorist, his head fully covered in a ski mask, looking out from the balcony at the Olympic Village.

Also unforgettable will always be the utterly devastated look of ABC’s Jim McKay, as he corrected erroneous reports that the athletes were safe by looking at the camera and delivering the official news that they were not: “They’re all gone.”

I can’t exactly remember how I processed all this information, except that it was a profound sense of sadness that shattered my euphoria, roller coaster emotions that were hard to square.

Sports media journalist Ed Sherman, who is about my age, says the Munich Massacre “helped me to understand my identity as a Jew, and the grip that Israel has on Jewish people throughout the world.”

This was a time when people of my generation — the tail end of the Baby Boom — were coming of age. We were small children for most of the 1960s, but hit our teenage years as the Vietnam War was winding down and a burglary occurred at Democratic National Party headquarters.

The early 1970s were, for me, a vast blur, with my parents’ divorce at the heart of the chaos. Older Boomers had anti-war protests and Kennedy assassinations as their touchstone memories. In addition to family matters, mine were Munich and Watergate.

ESPN’s Outside the Lines has special programming about the Munich anniversary; if you’ve got an hour, the following documentary, featuring the family members of the slain athletes and ABC journalists reporting the tragedy, is well worth your time.

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One Comment

  1. Posted September 5, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for spotlighting the massacre at the Munich Olympics and highlighting the video, “Tragedy of the Munich Games.” I attended the Munich games with my best friend and my mother and father. I was 13 years old and the Munich Games are definitely a “touchstone memory for me.” We stayed with a German family in Unterammergau, which is about 90km south of Munich. I’ve got so many fond memories of the Munich games, and your post may inspire me to write about them in more depth, as well as the other events (Watergate, ending of the Vietnam War, integrating my 9th grade class) that helped to shape me during the 1972-73 school year. It was truly a pivotal year in my development as a human being.

    My memory of the massacre in Munich is different than the typical American, because I was in Germany when things went down. Obviously, didn’t have access to American TV and rarely watched German TV in the house that we were staying in. We were always on the go, often traveling all over Germany without my parents. I vividly remember waking up and hearing from my parents what had happened.

    The games were suspended for a few days and I looked for other things to do. I decided to go on my own to the German prison camp, Dachau. As a Black child from the segregated South, my world view of race was Black and White. Had very little understanding of the struggles and discrimination that other races or religions experienced. Was going into the 9th grade and had no clue about the Holocaust. That day, visiting Dachau, heightened my world view and not only sensitized me to the struggles of Jews, but to the plight of all human beings in the world.

    Pretty amazing that the IOC missed the opportunity to honor the lives of the fallen Israeli athletes during the recent London games. When you have a stage like the Olympics, it’s irresponsible to not take the time to teach the world about the importance of tolerance and the sanctity of life.