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The Olympics of Terror: at the 1972 Games, Palestinian militants took Israeli athletes hostage, bringing terrorism to the world stage. (times past).

SNOWBOARDING TRICKS, FIGURE-SKATING GRACE, SKIING speed. At the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, the world hopes to come away with such snow-globe memories. Not masked terrorists, bound hostages, and carnage--the tragedy of the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.

This year's Games have increased security in light of recent threats, and because the Olympics and terror have crossed paths before. Thirty years ago, Palestinian militants took Israeli athletes and officials hostage at the Olympic Village and massacred them. Those events in Munich put terrorism on the global stage in a new way.

At the 2002 Winter Games, the U.S. is spending $225 million on safety and security, including 10,000 military troops on hand and fighter jets on alert. At the 1972 Summer Games, security was considerably more relaxed. The 2,000 guards were dressed in sky-blue leisure suits and jaunty caps, and carried only walkie-talkies. The event was billed as "The Games of Peace and Joy." The New York Times reported:

"The low military profile around the village has been part of a general pattern at the Games to play down the image of Germany as stiff and militaristic, a stereotype from World War II."


Sports was at its best as the Olympic Games started on August 26. Among the early highlights were U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz capturing a record seven gold medals, while gymnast Olga Korbut of the Soviet Union won the world's heart with her daring acrobatics and pixie smile.

But on the 11th day of competition, the Games turned into "The Olympics of Terror."

The morning of September 5, eight Palestinians from a militant group called Black September launched an attack on the Israeli team. Shortly after 4 a.m., the eight men clambered over an unguarded section of the fence around the Olympic Village, a housing complex for 10,000 participants. Posing as athletes themselves, they went to Building 31, where the Israeli team slept. Inside, they unpacked guns and grenades from their gym bags.

By 5:10 a.m., the terrorists had shot to death wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg, fatally wounded weight-lifter Joseph Romano, and rounded up nine other Israelis five referees and coaches, two weight-lifters, and two wrestlers, including teenager Mark Slavin, 18. The terrorists tied them up in a bedroom, and dragged in the dying Romano as a warning. Reports of shots led police to investigate and surround the building. From the second floor, the terrorist leader, known as Issa, dropped two pages of demands, calling for the release of 236 prisoners, almost all being held in Israel. Deadline: 9 a.m.

News of the hostage crisis spread quickly. Israel said it would neither release the prisoners nor negotiate with the terrorists. "If we should give in," said Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, "then no Israeli anywhere in the world can feel that his life is safe."

German authorities stalled for time. They offered ransom money and volunteered a hostage exchange. The terrorists refused, but pushed back the deadline.

Olympic events went on as scheduled until about noon, when officials bowed to growing criticism of their insensitivity and suspended the Games. By that time, the main event was in the Olympic Village. TV crews set up cameras on surrounding roofs as about 80,000 spectators lined the fences seeking a glimpse of what was going on.

In the late afternoon, the terrorists offered an alternative: Fly them and their nine hostages to a sympathetic Arab country. The Germans agreed, providing two helicopters to take the group to a waiting jet at a small airfield.

Actually, German officials had no intention of letting the Palestinians flee the country with the hostages. But lacking a trained counterterrorism unit, the Munich police hastily cobbled together a squad of five snipers and an undercover jet crew, hoping to kill or capture the terrorists.

The rescue fell apart at the airfield. The Germans didn't have floodlights, enough snipers, or any walkie-talkies to set an effective trap. Amid confusion, two of the snipers opened fire shortly after 11 p.m. A chaotic gun battle ensued. The hostages, bound together, were trapped in the helicopters.

About midnight, police began an assault using armored cars. A Palestinian gunman fired point-blank into the four hostages in one helicopter, then tossed in a grenade. The helicopter erupted in a fireball.

Another terrorist machine-gunned the remaining five Israeli captives. Too late, the snipers shot the terrorists one by one. When fighting ceased around 12:30 a.m. on September 6, five of the Palestinians and a German police officer had been killed, and three terrorists captured. All nine of the Israeli hostages were dead.


A memorial service was held that morning in the Olympic Stadium. The Games continued the next day. Some athletes, including the remaining Israeli team members, were furious that the Games weren't canceled, and they left for their home countries.

The terrorists claimed that the events brought attention to the plight of Palestinians, even as their bloody acts were condemned. Said a Black September member:

"The name of Palestine was repeated all over the world that day. A lot of the people ... who had never heard of Palestine knew then that there was a deprived people with a cause to fight for."

Israel launched strikes on terrorist camps and eventually killed all but one of the surviving gunmen. The U.S. took action on September 6, 1972, as The Times reported:

"The United States embarked today on diplomatic efforts throughout the world and new security measures at home to try to curb international political terrorism."

The tragedy scarred the Olympic ideal of a peaceful gathering in the spirit of sport. The Games are now a global target, and their security has been a major priority of host countries ever since.


Black September wasn't the only terrorist group making headlines in the 1970s. In the U.S., the following three groups were gaining momentum, protesting U.S. policies and agendas.

THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND--a radical group of mostly white, middle-class college students--protested the Vietnam War and fought for racial equality. On March 3, 1971, in response to military action in Laos, "Weathermen" detonated a bomb in the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol. On January 28, 1975, they set off a bomb in Albany, N.Y., to show solidarity with New York inmates who had been involved in America's bloodiest prison riot. The group soon disbanded in 1975.

THE SYMBIONESE LIBERATION ARMY (SLA), led by ex-convict Donald DeFreeze, had revolutionary ideals that were influenced in part by the student anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s and by prison programs that urged African Americans to unite against oppression and capitalistic exploitation. But when SLA "soldiers" assassinated popular black educator Marcus Foster on November 6, 1973, their credibility suffered. To dramatize its case, the SLA kidnapped 19-year-old newspaper heiress Patty Hearst on February 5, 1974. Two months later, the SLA robbed a San Francisco bank--with a gun-toting Hearst on the scene. On May 16, 1974, in an armed standoff between SLA and more than 400 L.A. police and FBI officials, six SLA members were killed. Most remaining members, including Hearst, were captured and tried one year later.

FALN, the Spanish abbreviation for Armed Forces of National Liberation, fought for the independence of Puerto Rico. The group was responsible for 130 bomb attacks on political and military targets throughout the U.S. in the 1970s and early 1980s. It claimed responsibility for killing four people and wounding 60 in the January 24, 1975, bombing of New York City's historic Fraunces Tavern. In the 1980s, the FBI arrested key members of FALN, curtailing the group's activities. In 1999, President Clinton pardoned 16 jailed FALN members.

--Elizabeth Mayer

FOCUS: Palestinian Terrorists Strike Israeli Athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games


To help students understand events surrounding the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.

Discussion Questions:

* If you were in charge of security at the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, what lessons from the 1972 Games would you use to prevent a tragedy similar to the one in Munich?

* Some people say that international events like the Olympic Games should be discontinued because they are natural targets for terrorists. Explain why you agree or disagree with this view.


Critical Thinking/Debate: This article offers at least two opportunities to have students think carefully and debate critical issues. First, discuss Israel's refusal to release jailed Palestinians or negotiate with the terrorists. Ask students to suggest pros and cons of each of these decisions. (Israel's position is that to do either is to encourage more terrorism.)

You might assign students to assume the roles of Israeli government officials who were involved in the case. Their duty is to write 100-word letters to the families of the captives, explaining why Israel's government will neither release the jailed Palestinians nor negotiate with the terrorists.

Next, address the German officials' refusal to allow the terrorists to be flown to a friendly Arab country. Upon reflection, should German authorities have allowed the terrorists to flee with their Israeli captives? Why or why not?

Next, ask students to discuss or write a brief essay in which they identify the pros and cons of canceling the remainder of the 1972 Games. Did the decision to continue the Games demonstrate disrespect for Israel and its murdered athletes? Or did the decision to continue the Games demonstrate that the terrorists could not intimidate the world?

Web Watch: For background on beefed-up security at the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, see printededition/chi-0110200181oct20. story?coll=chi-printsports-hed.
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Article Details
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Author:McCollum, Sean
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Feb 11, 2002
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