1972 Olympics: Tragedy Overshadows

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

1972 Summer Olympics

Host: Munich, West Germany

Medal table winner: The Soviet Union

Held between August 26th and September 11th, the 1972 games will unfortunately always be remembered for the events of the ‘Munich massacre’. In an Olympiad tainted by politics and the darkness of the Cold War, the world had to come together through the medium of sport to battle this taint of conflict. Munich won the rights to host the games after defeating Detroit, Montreal and Madrid in the voting process at an IOC congress in 1966.

The games proved the second to be held in Germany after the 1936 Olympics, which were hosted under the Nazi regime. The organisers were keen to tackle the link to the country’s ex-Fascist regime and put an emphasis on the games showing a new democratic and peaceful Germany. To further demonstrate this new Deutschland, the motto of the tournament was rather simply: ‘The Happy Games’.

After the United States had topped the medal charts for the last two games, the Cold War tug of war swung back in favour of the Communists. With an overall tally of 99 medals the USSR edged out America, whilst hosts West Germany came fourth behind their close eastern neighbours. Albania, North Korea, Lesotho, Saudi Arabia and Togo all made their Olympic debuts in Munich.

The 1972 games also saw the first competition to have a named mascot in the form of ‘Waldi’ the sausage dog.

The Munich massacre

One of the most infamous photos of all time, the Munich massacre

One of the most infamous photos of all time, the Munich massacre

With five days to go and the 1972 Olympics well in swing, the narrative of the games would change forever in one of the most tragic incidents in sporting history. September 5th 1972 saw eight members of the Black September Palestine terrorist organisation infiltrate the Olympic village. The group took nine Israeli athletes, coaches and officials hostage in their own rooms within the complex.

After a tense 18-hour stand-off, the terrorists and hostages were transferred to a military airbase where they planned to fly to the Middle East. However, the German authorities attempted to ambush the transfer. The plan failed miserably and chaos ensued, resulting in the death of all nine hostages as well as five of the terrorists.

The police eventually apprehended the surviving protagonists, later exchanging them for the hijacked Lufthansa jet later in 1972. The events triggered a dramatic rise in security at the Olympics, but one cannot forget the tragic events that cast a dark shadow over what should have been a panoramic celebration of togetherness through sport.

Marathon confusion

Aside from the violent tragedy, sport still rose above all the violence and dismay, no more so than in the men’s marathon. In a throwback to the marathon madness of the Olympics’ first few instalments there was confusion in the closing stages of the 1972 26 miler. American athlete Frank Shorter was looking a certain to win the event, leading the pack as the race winded towards the stadium.

However, unbeknown to the main pack there was an imposter taking to the track as German student Norbert Sudhaus entered the stadium in the lead. Dressed in a tracksuit, the gate crasher had joined the race for the last kilometre and crossed the line to the applause of the perplexed crowd. It wasn’t until officials realized the hoax that Sudhaus was escorted from the stadium by security.

Joining the stadia in a rapture of heckles for Sudhaus; a bewildered Shorter came through the final metres to take the gold medal. Despite a sprinkle of imposter madness, Shorter became the first American marathon winner since Johnny Hayes at London 1908.

Super Spitz

The Munich games also witnessed one of the most sensational individual Olympic performances of all time in the form of American swimmer Mark Spitz. The California born merman had bagged two golds, one silver and one bronze from the Mexico City games and came to West Germany hungry for more. Spitz was certainly expected to do well by the American public but little could they comprehend what lay ahead.

‘Mark the Shark’ left the 1972 games with an incredible seven gold medals and seven world records in only seven events. Never before had such an incredible, incomprehensible solo display ever been seen on an Olympic theatre. Spitz took first place in the 100m and 200m freestyle, 100m and 200m butterfly, 4x100m freestyle and medley rely and the 4x200m freestyle relay.

The US superstar’s tally of seven gold medals in a single Olympiad would not be overthrown until Michael Phelps went one medal better in 2008.

Supreme controversy

USSR 51-50 USA: the most controversial basketball match of all time

USSR 51-50 USA: the most controversial basketball match of all time

In the midst of the brittle tension of the Cold War, the Soviet Union versus the United States was always going to be a controversial encounter in the men’s basketball final and it didn’t disappoint. After a knife edged, nerve-shredding encounter, the US inched to victory by a nail biting score line of 50-49. The game was over, or was it?

Due to a series of baffling signals from the scoring table it was decided that the last three seconds of the game needed to be replayed. The shocked Americans made sure no mistakes were made and played out the three seconds to take the gold but still the panel were not happy. The three seconds were to be played for a second occasion.

This time the USSR were lethal and Sergei Belov executed a dying second manoeuvre to sink the winning basket for 51-50. The Russians engaged in delirious celebrations as the horn sounded for the final time whilst the Americans launched an apoplectic protest. The reasons for the replaying of those final seconds remains up for debate and the US team are still to this day yet to collect their silver medals, they subside in a vault at the IOC’s headquarters in Lausanne.

Other sports

Russian gymnastic prodigy Olga Korbet made her debut on the big stage with four medals in Munich. The legendary gymnast took gold in the team, balance beam and floor exercise events but threw away the uneven bars competition after an uncharacteristic series of errors in her final routine.

The Cold War rivalry transpired into the track events and not just the basketball court as Russia’s Valeriy Borzov shocked the world to bag the 100m and 200m double. However, the 100m-quarter finals struck up incredible controversy as US favourites Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson failed to qualify having been given incorrect start times.

At only the age of 15, Shane Gould made an immense statement on the world stage by sealing five medals for his nation Australia. Munich saw the Sydney-born swimmer win three golds, one silver and a bronze but despite this would never go onto make an impact at the Olympics for the rest of his career.

Only four years after the banning of US athletes from the Olympic games due to the famous ‘Black Power salute’ and there was further podium scandals in 1972. Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett saw themselves banned from the games for life after twirling their medals, joking and not facing their flag during their 400m medal ceremony.


YJA Senior Sports Correspondent