Travel History: Munich Olympics 1972

Germany · About Culture & History
Traveling to the Olympics has always been a favorite of mine. The excitement of seeing the best of the best athletes competing, all together in one place is extraordinary. It is a time of world peace, unity and harmony – but not this time.

It was the summer of 1972. Betty and I were in Munich, West Germany. We had just witnessed the phenomenal performance of Mark Spitz who had set world records in all seven of his gold medal victories. That had never been done in Olympic history! It was glorious!

The next day, Betty and I had just finished our game of tennis and left the prestigious Iphitos Tennis Club in the center of town and planned to stop for a refreshing beer on our way back to the hotel. However, the sight that greeted us in the normally busy street was shocking. The street was just loaded with massive army tanks and German soldiers in full combat gear! It looked like a complete war zone!

We inched our way down the sidewalk toward the intersection where we would normally catch the bus that leads back to our quarters. As we walked down, we noticed that the Israeli barracks for their team was completely surrounded by German soldiers. We both looked at each other in shock and wondered what the hell was happening. The tension in the once festive air was thick. At that moment the Olympic Games came to a sudden and astonishing halt.

At that point, we found a place where we could sit down and have a beer and watch the whole thing unfold on television. By then I couldn’t believe that the television cameras were showing where the soldiers were bivouacking, preparing for an obvious attack. We found out that the word circulating was that some terrorists had taken the Israeli team hostage. And here we were sitting in the bar, in the middle of it all watching it unfold in real-time outside the windows and on tv.

Then one of the waiters turned off the tube which was our signal that perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to hang around. We quickly paid our tab and headed quickly back to where we were staying to follow the events in a place that was a safer distance away. Things were happening at breakneck speed.

By nightfall negotiations to free the Israelis in exchange for the freedom of the terrorists seem to calm things down a bit.

The following morning, the terrorists, who still had the Israeli athletes hostage, were to be taken to the airport.

In the meantime, I’d gotten ahold of Arnold and Lenore Spitz, Mark Spitz’s parents who were traveling with us. We went out of town, south to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and went up on top of one of their tall mountains. We spent the day in a Gasthaus sipping beer and watching television. They had been told that Mark who had fortunately finished all of his events, was safe. They wouldn’t say where he was but assured them that he was fine. The German authorities were absolutely petrified that he, being Jewish, would also be a target. No question. However, later we would find out he was on his way back to the United States.

We watched on TV from our mountain peak in sustained disbelief as the events continued to escalate. The rest is history; Palestinian terrorist group Black September killed eleven Israeli Olympic team members and one West German police officer in the “Munich massacre.” Five of the eight members of the terrorist group were killed by police officers and the other three were eventually captured. Despite the tragedy, after a day or two, the Olympic Games resumed.

I remember these events vividly yet they do not overshadow my vision of Mark and the sensation he created with his moustache and full head of hair. While the other swimmers shaved every last bit of hair to increase a nanosecond of speed, there was Mark, relaxed, happy, talking and putting on a show that would go down in history!

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