The Meaning of Munich
The so-called Munich massacre changed the Olympics forever. "A political terrorist attack at the world festival of peace and international collaboration was unprecedented--and sacrilegious," says Olympics historian John MacAloon.
Security was lax at the 1972 games by design. Hosting the summer Olympics was Germany's chance to show the world that it had redeemed itself from Nazism. "Security personnel were told to go easy, not to be gruff or dictatorial," says Olympics historian Allen Guttmann.
Early on September 5, eight members of the radical Palestinian group Black September hopped the fence into Munich's Olympic Village and stormed the quarters of the Israeli delegation without incident. They murdered two Israelis and took nine more hostage, demanding the release of more than 200 Arab prisoners, mostly in Israel. After a day of failed negotiations with German authorities, the terrorists and hostages were ferried to a nearby air base, where a plane was waiting, as the terrorists requested. But a nighttime firefight between German snipers and the terrorists left all nine hostages dead, along with five of their captors and a sniper.
After a one-day suspension, the games resumed--a controversial move, though even Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir called for them to continue.
If gun-wielding guards were a no-no at Munich, they've been de rigueur at every Olympics since. "Olympic villages became secure camps, diminishing the festival atmosphere, with athletes insulated from the public," says MacAloon. Security became a prime consideration in selecting host cities. And the intelligence sharing that surrounded post-Munich Olympics--even across Cold War lines--marked a major advance in international cooperation.
Because much of the roughly 20-hour crisis was broadcast around the world, Munich was "the most consequential terrorist incident in history prior to 9/11," says Rand Corp. terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman. While Palestinian radicals had been hijacking planes since 1968, those strikes were viewed as a Middle East problem. "No country could look at Munich and say, 'It wasn't our plane that was hijacked,'" says Jeffrey Simon, author of The Terrorist Trap .
New forces. Within weeks, Germany announced the formation of the GSG-9, a hostage rescue corps, followed by the creation of similar units elsewhere in Europe. In the United States, President Nixon convened the Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism. The new forces would attempt to avoid the mistakes of Munich, where sharpshooters at the air base lacked communications devices and bulletproof vests and were told they'd be gunning down five terrorists, not eight.
Terrorist groups, meanwhile, learned from Black September's success at Munich, which raised the Palestinian issue to international prominence. Two years later, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat first addressed the U.N. General Assembly. And when Palestinians hijacked a plane shortly after the '72 games and demanded the release of the three surviving Munich terrorists, their wish was granted--though Israelis later assassinated two of them. -Dan Gilgoff
Terrorism vs. sports
In the years since the Munich massacre, terrorism has cast a shadow over international sporting events.
1987 A Korean Air Lines jet explodes over Burma, killing more than 100. South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan attributes the crash to a plot by North Korean terrorists to disrupt planning for the Seoul Olympics.