Munich 1972: The First Modern Olympics?

It was September 5, 1972. With my apologies to Don McLean this was the day the music died. With the Summer Olympic games only days away, my mind drifts back to the games of the Olympics held in 1972. Those days are fixed in my mind. I was a high school senior back then. Like most of my sports-loving friends, we were excited to watch as much as we could of the Olympics. For many reasons, these were the Olympic games that have stayed in my mind as I have seen them come and go through the years.

For the United States Olympic team, the games were a mixture of failure, great feats of athletic strength, ineptitude by the coaches, a stolen gold medal, and finally, tragedy as the specter of worldwide terrorism took over and left its mark not only on the world of fun and games, but drug use into the modern age of terrorism and tragedy.

Spitz Swims to a Record 7 Gold Medals

In 1972 swimmer Mark Spitz boasted he would win 6 gold medals. He went one better, winning seven. In the same pool, fellow American Rick DeMont swam to an impressive victory in the 400 freestyle. Days later, DeMont, who suffered from asthma, was stripped of his medal. Drug testing following the race showed traces of a banned substance. Before the race, DeMont had asked his coaches to be sure the medication was on the approved list. Assured that it was, he took the medicine as directed. It turned out that the drug was not approved. The result caused DeMont  to lose his medal.

Triumph, Failure, and lack of Communication in Track and Field

In track and field, Frank Shorter won the marathon. Jim Ryun, competing in his 3rd and final Olympics, was tripped by another runner and lost his last chance to win a gold medal. Ryun showed his courage, got up from the fall, and gamely finished the race while holding back his tears. Sprinters Rey Robinson and Eddie Hart got ready to run in a preliminary race. As they neared the stadium, they heard the announcer call for their heat to line up. They missed the race, because the track coach had given them a schedule that was several weeks out of date. In a tearful interview the athletes told of their lost chance. The coaches and USOC officials tried in vain to pass the blame while they were being interviewed by Howard Cosell.

USA vs. the Soviet Union in the Basketball game that never ended

In 1972, quite often the Cold War was played out in the sporting arena, as the USA and Soviet Union competed for world dominance not just in ideology, but on the playing field as well. This tension heightened as the two basketball teams prepared for the Gold Medal game. The US had never lost a game in the Olympics. In 1972, it was in no way a sure bet that the US would win the medal in the game it had dominated for so long. Coach Hank Iba had fielded the youngest team ever and was more notable for who wasn’t there than for who was there. All-American center Bill Walton chose to boycott the team in protest of the US involvement in Southeast Asia. Even so, the young American team held a 50-49 lead with 3 seconds to play. Then, inexplicably, the referees gave the Soviets the chance to inbound the ball 3 times, after the Americans had celebrated victory. Finally, on their 3rd try, the Soviet team hit a basket at the final buzzer to give them a 51-50 victory. An appeal the next day upheld the final result, by a 3-2 vote. (It should be noted that 3 of the five judges were from the Eastern Bloc). The silver medals the US team was awarded still sit in a safe in Switzerland never to be claimed.

Black September

If the Cold War was being played out on the sports field, at least it kept the battles on the field, not on the battlefield. A loss only damaged national pride. Then on September 5, the horrible specter of terrorism woke the world up to a new reality. Members of Israel’s Olympic team were kidnapped and eventually killed by their captors, called Black September. After a tense day of negotiations, the demands of the terrorist group would not be met.

Sportscaster Jim McKay of ABC, in perhaps his finest work, kept an anxious and disbelieving world up to date. Cameras panned from German soldiers in the Olympic village, hooded terrorists, and Israeli atheletes peeking through windows. There would be no negotiation with terrorists. Late in the day the kidnappers transported the atheletes to the Munich Airport, planning to board a plane bound to Cairo. It was there that the group was ambushed by German police officers. The guns of the Palestinians were turned on the athletes, and all 11 were killed. Five of the kidnappers were killed, too. Sports that day had indeed become the stuff of life and death. Jim McKay sadly reported with these sad words – “They are gone … All of them.”


After a few days of mourning, the games continued. The 1972 games were billed to be the friendly games, as German officials sought to show off a new softer friendly attitude. What were billed as the “Friendly Games” were anything but.

40 years ago I was a high school athlete with a moderate amount of ability. I believed in the adage that sports builds character. I’m older now, and instead of believing that simple bit of wisdom, I prefer to believe that sports reveals character. If this is true, then the Olympic games of 1972 and probably all games after have revealed to the world the best and the worst of our character.