In 1972, the Munich Olympics ended tragically with the death of a total of eleven Israeli Olympians at the hands of Black September Palestinian terrorists (Schiller and Young, 2). While only two Israelis were killed on the spot, the other nine died in captivity because of a hesitant, too-small police force, only worsening the blow (Schiller and Young, 2). Furthermore, tensions flared among individuals and nations that, due to anti-Israel ideology, did not really oppose what had occurred (Schiller and Young, 211). This was a dreadful blow to Israel. Only hours before, it was believed that such a violently catastrophic event would never occur because of the nature of Olympic sport.
“In the early hours of 5 September, members of the Palestinian group Black September had broken into the Olympic village, shot dead two members of the Israeli Olympic team, and taken nine of their compatriots hostage in a day-long siege that turned Munich into ‘the cockpit of world events.’ When this seismic moment of globally televised terrorism ended in a farrago of police errors that led to the death of all the Israeli captives, the bleakest day in the histories of the Olympic movement and the young Federal Republic was complete” (The 1972 Munich Olympics, 2).
The Munich Olympics started quite positively for the Israeli team. Their relationship with Germany perhaps “emotionally fragile” but otherwise on positive terms, they received a positive and cordial welcome in the Opening Ceremony of the Games (Schiller and Young, 187, 188). In fact, despite the tensions of the era, each team was appropriately, if stiffly, welcomed (Schiller and Young, 187). Germany was relieved: this was its opportunity to replace its disturbing Nazi history in a powerful way. They could extend sincere hospitality and respect to Israel on popularly-watched, global scale.
German vice-chancellor and foreign minister Walter Scheel described the opportunity as, “the unique opportunity to use the worldwide interest in sport to draw attention to the portrayal of our development…and to project to the rest of the world the image of a modern Germany…” (Schiller and Young, 3). Sport, it was believed, was a place where political tensions could be put aside and that people could unite themselves on the field, brought together for a mutual love of the game. In Germany’s eyes, then, the Olympics was a chance for the international community to enjoy themselves in Germany or to enjoy watching their beloved team in Germany, to see a new Germany of peaceful tolerance. If sport was known to foster at least a momentary cordiality between otherwise-tense nations, why did the terrorist attack occur in 1972?
Indeed, Israelis were pleased to have the opportunity to present themselves on the international sporting stage as well, hoping to forge positive connections with European countries (Schiller and Young, 90). Furthermore, their resounding victory at home in The Six-Day War, only a few years prior, gave Israel an air of confidence and strength, and began an era of economic prosperity (ʻAdwān Sāmī ʻAbd al-Razzāq, Dan Bar-On, Eyal J Naveh, and Peace Research Institute in the Middle East, 220, 222). Despite their history of oppression, they saw within themselves a developing strength, a sense that they were a force to be reckoned with.
Thus, as the Israeli Olympic team entertained themselves at a musical in Munich the night before tragedy struck (Schiller and Young, 194), they likely felt quite confident and sure and, most importantly, hopeful. This would not last long: the very next day, September 5, the tragedy occurred (Schiller and Young, 2). The American journalist Jim McKay, looking back on the event, said: “It was the end of innocence for all of us” (Schiller and Young, 187).
This very sentiment, “the end of innocence,” ultimately explains the reasoning behind this terrorist attack. Israel was proving too successful in light of The Six-Day War and the restoring relationship with Germany. Black September believed that if they could not destroy Israelis at home, they could abroad (Sachar and Ovid, 699).
In fact, on such a globally important stage, a stage rooted in peace and tolerance, these Palestinians had the opportunity to make a statement against the Jewish state that could reverberate powerfully, perhaps more powerfully than war over land holdings, but the whole world was watching the Olympics with an expectation of peace. If Black September could damage Israel’s confidence and growing power in front of the whole world, they perhaps believed, they could move toward their physical and ideological destruction. They tarnished Germany’s reputation and, certainly, their own in the wake of their event, but they believed they had met their mark and were moving toward their ideological goals.
Ultimately, the terrorist attack in Munich brought to the forefront the severity of Israeli-Palestinian tensions. The attack proved so shocking, however, because these territorial, political, and ideological tensions collided with Olympics sports in an unprecedented, never-before-seen way. With the entire world watching, Palestine made a clear statement, ushering in realizations of inescapable conflict in the one space that usually broke free from such tensions.
ʻAdwān Sāmī ʻAbd al-Razzāq, Dan Bar-On, Eyal J Naveh, and Peace Research Institute in the Middle East. 2012. Side by Side : Parallel Histories of Israel/Palestine. New York: New Press.
Sachar, Howard Morley, Oved Iaácov, and Paul Avrich Collection (Library of Congress). 1976. A History of Israel. New York: Knopf.
Schiller, Kay, and Christopher Young. 2010. The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany. Weimar and Now, 42. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tessler, Mark A. 2009. A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. 2Nd ed. Indiana Series in Arab and Islamic Studies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Tomlinson, Alan, and Christopher Young. 2005. National Identity and Global Sports Events : Culture, Politics, and Spectacle in the Olympics and the Football World Cup. Suny Series on Sport, Culture, and Social Relations. Albany: State University of New York Press.