Terror at the Games

SENSELESS | Police officers atop 31 Connollystrasse, the Olympic Village residence seized by Palestinian terrorists.

WSJ-Book Review

“German security forces performed lamentably. The terrorists encountered no resistance while capturing their hostages except from the Israelis, two of whom they killed. “

Security costs for the 2012 Olympics in London in July are expected to top half a billion pounds, or about $800 million, with plans calling for elaborate airport-style security at competition venues and for a force of more than 23,000 guards, including army reservists, blanketing the city. Certainly the security concerns at any large international gathering are heightened in the post-9/11 world, but the Olympics have operated on maximum alert for decades—ever since the horror of the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, when Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and team officials hostage and ultimately murdered them all.

The world watched incredulously as the crisis unfolded on television, ending in a bloodbath when German police botched a rescue attempt and the Palestinians killed the hostages. There followed an improvised memorial service in the Olympic stadium attended by 80,000 and seen by millions on television. When conductor Otto Klemperer, in a wheelchair, led the Munich Philharmonic in a moving performance of the funeral march from Beethoven’s “Eroica,” it was hard not to be moved to tears. But then the president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, intruded.

The octogenarian American in his memorial address referred, astonishingly, to “two savage attacks.” It took a moment to comprehend what he meant, but then Brundage explained: The Munich Games had been marred by the slaughter of the Israelis, yes, but also by the “naked political blackmail” of the African countries that, threatening a boycott, had succeeded in having Rhodesia barred from the Games because of the white-minority government’s racist policies. While Brundage’s audience tried to comprehend the jaw-dropping equivalence that he had just drawn, between the murder of Israelis and a blow against racism, the IOC president announced: “The Games must go on.”

Despite the objections of Israel and many athletes, the competition did resume—these were the Olympics of Mark Spitz’s swimming feats for the U.S. and Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut’s vault to international fame. But the Olympics have never gone on as they did before. Munich’s grim shadow has loomed over all the Games since, and London will be no different.

David Clay Large’s “Munich 1972” it is an almost ideal matching of historian and subject. Mr. Large has written one excellent book about Munich under the Nazis and another on the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Moreover, he was in Munich in 1972: Academic research happened to bring him to the city during the Games. In this superb chronicle, Mr. Large evokes the febrile atmosphere of that time and place, as the sporting festivities that were supposed to celebrate Germany’s return to the fellowship of democratic nations turned into a nightmare: the ideology-driven murder of Jews on German soil.


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