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Despite Murder and Mayhem

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Despite Murder and Mayhem

A personal remembrance of the 1972 Munich Olympics September 4, 2020
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

As a member of the USA fencing team in 1972, I looked forward to marching in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Munich, though I had other emotions, too. I’m Jewish; the Games were being held in a country that barely more than a quarter-century earlier had been run by the Nazis. I had misgivings about the “new” Germany being let off the hook so soon after World War II—and so soon, in Olympic years, after Hitler’s display in the 1936 Berlin Games. The Munich Games of ’72 represented an enormous propaganda effort to revamp Germany’s image. But I believed in the Games.

The horror began at 4:30 a.m. on September 5. As the athletes slept, eight tracksuit-clad members of the Black September faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization snuck into the Olympic Village, into two of the Israeli team’s apartments. In the Olympic Village, Team USA was housed directly across from the Israelis’ building. I could see some of the hooded Palestinians on the balconies across the way.

The Black September terrorists took nine members of the Israeli team hostage after killing two of them. They demanded the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. They also demanded the release of the West German-held founders of the Red Army Faction, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof.

Five of the eight Black September members were killed during a failed attempt to rescue the hostages. A West German policeman was also killed in the crossfire.

Two of those on the Israeli team killed were my friends—David Berger, a weightlifter who had been a teammate on the 1969 Maccabiah team and stayed to compete for Israel, and fencing coach Andre Spitzer, whom I had met in 1969. 

None of us really understood what was occurring. The State Department escorted U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz to safety. Spitz was Jewish.

I left the Olympic Village and went to the IOC Media Center, where my friend John Lovesey, sports editor of The Sunday Times of London, was working. We watched as the news (and rumors) came in. It was mind-numbing. Security in the Olympic Village had certainly been lax; the Germans had wanted to keep a low-profile security presence because of sensitivity about their wartime heritage. Still, the German police and Olympic organizers’ handling of the incident was abysmal, and more facts about their incompetence and coverups have emerged over the years. International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage treated the murders more as a political problem than as a murderous act of terrorism.

In the immediate aftermath, some argued that the Games should be cancelled, but I was among those who felt that they should go on, lest we give Black September another victory. A memorial event for the slain athletes was attended by 80,000 spectators and 3,000 Olympians.

In spite of this grim experience, I have never lost my passion for the Olympic Games and continue to believe in their cultural importance. I have attended every summer Games since Munich, with the exception of Moscow in 1980, and I marched in opening ceremonies as a team leader in four more Games. It’s in my DNA, as is my passion for fencing, which has endured as an Olympic sport for more than six decades—despite murder and mayhem.

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

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