Munich Massacre

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The worst tragedy in modern Olympic history

by Mike Morrison
Munich Massacre

The Munich Olympics in 1972 were marred by terrorism. (Source: AP)

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In 1972 the Olympics returned to Germany for the first time since 1936. Back then, Nazism was hitting its stride and Adolf Hitler hoped to use the Games as a way to show off the "superiority" of his Aryan race on a world's stage.

Most Germans hoped the Munich Games in 1972 would at least in some way help to heal the racial wounds caused by Hitler. The world was still rife with political unrest. The Vietnam War raged on, racial tensions in the United States persisted, and violence littered the Middle East. German president Gustav Heinemann welcomed the Olympics as "a milestone on the road to a new way of life with the aim of realizing peaceful coexistence among peoples."

Eight Arab Terrorists

On the morning of September 5, with six days left in the Games, the worst tragedy in Olympic history hit. Eight Arab terrorists stormed into the Olympic village and raided the apartment building that housed the Israeli contingent. Two Israeli athletes were killed and nine more were seized as hostages. They demanded the release of over 200 Palestinians serving time in Israeli jails, along with two renowned German terrorists.

After a day of unsuccessful negotiations, the terrorists collected the hostages and headed for the military airport in Munich for a flight back to the Middle East. At the airport, German sharpshooters opened fire, killing three of the Palestinians. A horrifying gun battle ensued, claiming the lives of all nine of the hostages, along with one policeman and two terrorists.

Controversial Decision

Athletic competition was suspended for 24 hours. During a day of mourning, a memorial service was held at the main stadium in front of 80,000 spectators. In a controversial decision, IOC president Avery Brundage declared, "the Games must go on." And so they did, with the Olympic and national flags flying at half-mast.

The most memorable footage from Munich should have been that of American swimmer Mark Spitz winning his seventh gold medal or 17-year-old Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut wowing the world on the balance beam. Instead, we're left with disturbing photos of terrorists in ski masks and of a policeman standing on the roof of the compound waiting to pounce with a semi-automatic weapon. And ultimately we're left with the video of ABC announcer Jim McKay uttering his fateful words, "They're all gone."

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