Munich 1972 and the Olympic Boycotts

Munich 1972 and the Olympic Boycotts

In September of 1972 an unprecedented terrorist attack unfolded live before 900 million television viewers across the globe and ushered in a brave new world of unpredictable violence.

It was the second week of the Summer Olympics, and in Munich, West Germany, the games that had been dubbed “The Olympics of Peace and Joy” were off to a rousing start with swimmer Mark Spitz and gymnast Olga Korbut wowing the crowds. Suddenly, without warning, an extremist Palestinian group known as Black September invaded the Olympic Village, killing two members of the Israeli Olympic team and capturing nine as hostages. The tense stand-off and tragic massacre that ensued played out with stunning immediacy on television before an international populace and ended 21 hours later when anchorman Jim McKay spoke the haunting words, “They’re all gone.”

The suggestion that, since sport is self-evidently political, the political terms of engagement must be acceptable before agreeing to the rules of competition emerged most strongly in the 1960s over the issue of apartheid and southern Africa.

The anti-apartheid sports movement, which sought to prevent all sporting contact with South Africa, gained momentum after African countries founded the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa (SCSA) in 1966. In the same year Afro-American athletes and civil-rights activists pressured the US Olympic Committee to oppose South African participation in the Olympics. By 1968 the boycott movement created widespread opposition to sporting links with South Africa: the new nations of black Africa, the Caribbean, Islamic and Communist countries threatened to boycott the Games.

In 1970 South Africa was banned from the Olympic movement. Avery Brundage, president of the IOC, reluctantly acknowledged, “We have to face the facts of life – political powers have more to say than we do.” He believed that conceding to one demand that breached the fiction of sport’s separation from politics would only lead to increasing politicization. His fear was realized four days before the opening ceremony of the 1972 Olympics, when 27 African nations, some other countries outside Africa and some American black athletes threatened to pull out of the Games if Rhodesia, with a similar racial policy to that of South Africa, was allowed to compete.

Brundage described this pressure as “naked political blackmail”, but in 1975 Rhodesia was expelled from the Olympic movement, and Zimbabwe was accepted after independence. In 1976 Tanzania, and then a further 19 African countries along with Guyana and Iraq pulled out of the Games because the IOC refused to ban New Zealand athletes. The New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team had toured South Africa at the time of the Soweto riots, and the New Zealand government had ignored an appeal from SCSA to cancel the tour. This “third party boycott” introduced a new dimension: it was in opposition to a country collaborating with apartheid sport.

Security Lack at the Olympic Village

Wearing sweat suits, eight men simply climbed over a 6-ft. barrier around the village at 4:10 a.m. Armed with AK-47s, they rounded up 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and a referee, shooting two dead early on. The terrorists demanded the release of 234 prisoners from Israeli jails. Negotiations were ruled out by the Israelis, but the Germans began fake ones to buy time. In the afternoon, the Black September commander, distinctive in his white hat, insisted that his team and the hostages be flown to Cairo.

More than once, a different interpretation of politics has tragically intruded into Olympic sports. At Munich in 1972 17 people, 11 of them Israeli athletes, were killed when Palestinian Black September guerrillas took hostages at the Olympic village. Linking this with the boycotts, Brundage insisted, “The Games must go on… The IOC has suffered two savage attacks within the past few days – one on the Rhodesian situation, in which political blackmail was used, and now this.”

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