Olympic Tragedy: 1972 Revisited: The Shadow of Terrorism Still Haunts the Olympics Almost 30 Years after Israeli Athletes Were Massacred in Munich. Could the Games in Salt Lake City Be a Nightmare Revisited? (Nation: Olympic Terror)

By Maier, Timothy W. | Insight on the News, November 12, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Olympic Tragedy: 1972 Revisited: The Shadow of Terrorism Still Haunts the Olympics Almost 30 Years after Israeli Athletes Were Massacred in Munich. Could the Games in Salt Lake City Be a Nightmare Revisited? (Nation: Olympic Terror)


Maier, Timothy W., Insight on the News


At 4:30 a.m. on Sept. 5, 1972, five Palestinian Arabs dressed in tracksuits and carrying gym bags climbed a 6-foot-high security fence surrounding the Olympic Village in Munich, West Germany. The dozens of onlookers thought nothing of it as Olympic athletes often snuck out at night to enjoy the city life and slipped back in the early-morning hours.

But once inside the Olympic grounds these five men met three others and proceeded quickly to 31 Connolly Street, where they threw their shoulders against the door of a 33-year-old Israeli wrestling coach, Moshe Weinberg.

Weinberg sensed something. "Get out!" he cried to his athletes as he and 32-year-old weightlifter Yossef Romano desperately tried to block the door through which the terrorists were trying to break. As several Israeli athletes escaped through the windows, the frustrated Arabs pulled automatic rifles from their gym bags and fired a hail of bullets through the door, fatally striking Weinberg. Romano, too, was shot to death.

What West Germany had billed as "Games of Peace and Joy" now was anything but that. Playing host to the Olympics had been seen as a chance for Germany to show the rest of the world how far it had come from the era of Adolf Hitler, but Germans now found themselves having to come to grips yet again with the spilling of innocent Jewish blood on German soil. British author Simon Reeve, author of One Day in September, a critical examination of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, tells Insight from London, "I think the German authorities have to shoulder a fair degree of the blame for failing to provide adequate security surrounding the Olympic Village. They were utterly inept. They received warnings terrorists might launch an attack but did nothing. The Israeli authorities also failed to provide adequate security for their athletes and officials."

The rest of the world soon would learn of the tragic events as the gunmen proclaimed they were members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist organization, and were holding nine Olympians hostage. They issued their demand: Release 200 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons and provide a safe passage out of Germany.

German authorities quickly began negotiating with the terrorists. They agreed to lift them out by helicopter to the NATO air base at Furstenfeld-bruck, where they would be given an airplane to fly with nine hostages to Cairo. The terrorists claimed they would exchange the hostages for West German law-enforcement officers once they reached the airport. News broke that the hostages would be released and all would be safe.

Whatever the terrorists had in mind, the West Germans were bluffing and laid a quickly conceived trap in which they assigned five sharpshooters to kill the terrorists at the airport. However, there actually were eight terrorists, not five as they had supposed, and so they were three sharpshooters short. As two of the Arabs walked to their getaway plane for an inspection and then began to move slowly back to the others, the first sharpshooter opened fire and terrorists began to fall. When one of the untargeted Palestinians realized what was happening, he simply tossed a grenade into the helicopter where the athletes were waiting, killing everyone inside.

Just 19 hours from the time the first terrorists scaled the security fence, the elaborate tragedy was over. A West German police officer, 11 Olympians and five terrorists were dead. Three of the terrorists were captured. Holding back tears, legendary ABC sportscaster Jim McKay reported solemnly, "They're all gone." The death toll included one American, David Berger, a 26-year-old weightlifter with dual citizenship who had moved to Israel.

The news stunned a world that had gone to sleep thinking all was safe. "The Israelis went to bed thinking everything was fine," says security consultant and former U.S. Secret Service agent Bill Mattman, who was in Tel Aviv at the time of the incident after having worked on security for the 1972 games.

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Olympic Tragedy: 1972 Revisited: The Shadow of Terrorism Still Haunts the Olympics Almost 30 Years after Israeli Athletes Were Massacred in Munich. Could the Games in Salt Lake City Be a Nightmare Revisited? (Nation: Olympic Terror)
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