The Munich Massacre is one of the greatest tragedies to have struck the sporting world. During the 1972 Summer Olympics, held in Munich, West Germany, a terrorist group from Palestine took a number of athletes from Israel’s Olympic team hostage and eventually killed them.
The 1972 Summer Olympics or the Games of the XX Olympiad was a much-anticipated event. It was the first time since 1936 that the Olympic Games would be held in a German city. Despite a failed attempt to boycott Jews, the Nazi Party of Germany, with Adolf Hitler at its helm, had not failed to use the games as a propaganda tool to further the Nazi ideology. The world was now quite eager to see the change, and witness the contrast that a developed and democratic Munich offered under West Germany.
There was another reason the 1972 Summer Olympics was considered significant. The previous edition of the Summer Olympic Games had been held in Mexico City, and protestors belonging to the Mexican Student Movement of 1968 had been gunned down at the Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City. Memories of that horrifying incident had cast a shadow over the games.
The Security Breach
The Munich Olympics of 1972 presented a stark contrast to the 1968 Summer Olympics. Less than about USD 2 million was spent on the security arrangements. In fact, the security personnel deputed to guard the Olympics Village were completely unarmed. Thousands of athletes from about 120 countries had congregated in Munich to participate in the games and the opening ceremonies had been held with great pomp and gaiety and the games commenced.
The Hostage Crisis
On September 5, 1972, at about 4.30 a.m., eight terrorists from a Palestinian militant group called Black September entered the Olympic Village in Munich disguised as athletes. The terrorists carried with them AKM assault rifles, pistols, and grenades in duffel bags, and scaled the outer fence to gain entry. They used stolen keys to enter Apartments 1 and 3 which housed Israeli athletes and took 11 hostages. Two of them – Coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano – were shot and killed as they attempted to fight back. The 9 remaining hostages now in their captivity, the terrorists demanded the release of about 200 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. They also demanded that Red Army members be set free from German prisons. Their escape plan included getting an airplane and buying safe passage to the Middle East.
Massacre at Fürstenfeldbruck
The West German Police could not attempt a rescue mission as the ongoing hostage crisis was heavily publicized by the media. Besides, Egypt refused to be involved in the negotiation process. Authorities feigned agreement and the kidnappers and hostages were transported to the Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base, where the police lay in wait for an ambush. The police snipers had not received formal training to handle such a crisis and were equipped only with assault rifles. Disguised as crew members, 17 policemen were placed on a Boeing 727. The idea was to subdue the terrorists once they boarded the plane. The mission was abandoned due to lack of reinforcements. The terrorists soon realized the deception and opened indiscriminate fire. The hostages who were hurt and bound were caught in the crossfire and killed. By the end of the shootout, eleven Israeli athletes and one West German policeman had been killed. Five Black September militants were killed and three were captured. The rescue operation had been a colossal failure at every level.
The Olympic Games resumed after a 24-hour suspension as a tribute to the fallen athletes. The Munich Massacre led to a drastic increase in security in the following Olympic Games. Another fallout was Israel subsequently bombing a number of PLO bases in Syria and Lebanon as a response to the horrific incident. And interestingly, of the three surviving members of the Black September group who were arrested, two had to be released as part of the negotiations for a highjacked Lufthansa flight.