120 Years, 120 Stories (Part 27) : 21 hours of life-crisis at Munich Olympics


In 120 years of its journey, the Olympics perhaps have never witnessed a day gloomier than what transpired throughout the 5th of September in 1972, when the quadrennial event took place at the West German city of Munich. A Palestine militant outfit Black September took a section of Israeli contingent as hostages – the stand-off lasting a total 21 hours.

In an earlier article, we have elaborated how politically the Games were motivated at Berlin in 1936 courtesy Adolf Hitler – when the last time it took place in Germany. In order to cast off its so-called military image, the West German Olympic Organizing Committee decided to keep the security in loose measures. But, there were always possibilities of a Palestinian outlash on the Israeli or for that matter on the people of Jewish descents. In fact, a timely tip-off from the authorities at Bonn and estimation from forensic psychologists about a possible Israel-Palestine conflict were turned a deaf ear to by the German authorities.

Now, on the fateful morning of September 5th at around 4:30 am, a group of eight terrorists from a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) intruded into the Olympic Village. The militants of the Black September disguised themselves in athlete’s track-suits carrying ample ammunition in their kits. As the Israeli contingent rested at an isolated part of the village, it helped the attackers to sneak in with the help of duplicate keys to the apartments. It was later learnt from a Uruguayan delegate that he saw one of the attackers named Yusuf Nazzal (Tony) earlier working in the village who is supposed to have given the other team members a hands-on perk in framing strategies.

Soon, the assailants took nine from the Israeli fraternity as hostages before shooting dead two (wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano) while the others fled from the scene. The terrorists demanded immediate release of 234 Palestinians and non-Arab prisoners languishing in various Israel jails. However, the Israeli government, as per its official militant policy, refused to budge. A negotiation began between the militants and the German authorities – the latter were facing troubled waters politically as all Israeli captives were Jews. The assailants eventually accepted an offer from the German mediators of taking hostages to an Arab country (possibly Egypt despite reservations from Cairo to get involved in the crisis) after rejecting a boundless sum of money and an offer to release the Israeli athletes in exchange for high-ranked Germans.

Before the German authority planned to ambush the terrorists at the Furstenfeldtbruck airbase when they would land at the same for their flight to Cairo, a team from the Munich police tried a failed attempt to foil the militants owing to their initial drills being broadcasted live on TV, thanks to some insane coverage by the media present at the Games thus alerting the perpetrators. The militants were to take two helicopters to reach the NATO airbase and once again they thwarted a German police scheme to nab them as they took a bus to cover the 200-metre distance to the copters. At the airbase, five German soldiers were positioned as snipers while sixteen German police personnel dressed up as crew members as the Boeing 727 scheduled to take the attackers out of Germany.

Soon, the terrorists came to know of the German conspiracy and the Germans too learnt about miscalculating the number of militants involved in the attack (the negotiators assumed the number to be at most three while they were eight in actual). Learning this, the German police inside the plane aborted the mission and it all came down upon the snipers to have an open-fire. Two terrorists died at the spot while the rest took the hostages to the choppers. Realizing the failure of their mission, the Palestine militants started killing the hostages while the German soldiers initiated their onslaught in full fledge. At around 1:30 am on September 6th, the crisis ended after 21 hours claiming a total 17 casualties from both sides.

The casualties included 11 Israelis (Moshe Weinberg, Yossef Romano, Ze’ev Friedman, David Berger, Yakov Springer, Eliezer Halfin, Yossef Gutfreund, Kehat Shorr, Mark Slavin, Andre Spitzer, Amitzur Shapira), 5 terrorists (Luttif Afif, Yusuf Nazzal, Afif Ahmed Hamid, Khalid Jamal, Ahmed Chic Thaa) and a German police officer on airstrip (Anton Fliegerbauer). Other three perpetrators were arrested but had to be later released due to another subsequent plane hijack. The bodies of five terrorists were handed over to Libya where they were buried with military honours.

Coming to the effect that the episode have on the sporting event, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) did not suspend the Munich Olympics till 12 hours after Weinburg had been assassinated. After the seize was over, a memorial service was held where the IOC President Avery Brundage hardly referred to the slain athletes in his address which angered many listeners. During the memorial service, the Olympic Flag was flown at half-mast along with the flags of the participating nations. But, ten Arab nations objected to it and their flags were restored to the top immediately.

Though the Munich organizers wanted to cancel the remaining of the Games, the IOC overruled and the Games continued in the spirit of sportsmanship. In the aftermath of the attack, security beefed up for the Jewish athletes. The American seven Gold medal winning swim-star Mark Spitz, who was done with the Munich Olympics, was immediately flown back home in midst of the crisis. A few teams left the Games fearing retaliation.

In all, the world is divided on its opinions regarding the dark incident. Whatever be the reservation, one thing is definite to be agreed unanimously – sports has always been an integrating force and a way to bury differences and such acts of harming sportspersons on political lines are not only shameful but also no less cowardly.

Photo by Discovery 2008