The world will always look forward to the Summer Games, but the world will always look back on the Summer Games of 1972. Outstanding performances, considerable controversy, and great tragedy make it so.
The 1972 summer games are the first Olympic games I can remember watching. The 1972 games were in Munich, West Germany. The last Olympics to be held in Germany were in 1936 in Berlin. Those Olympics had a dark cloud hanging over them as Adolph Hitler and his Nazis were about to start the Second World War. Things would be different this time.
Thirty-six years later, the 1972 games had a hopeful motto: ‘Heitere Spiele ‘(The cheerful games). Little did anyone know that the 1972 Summer Olympics would be anything but cheerful.
1972 Munich Games Begin
Things started cheerful enough. Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut became a media sensation after winning a gold medal in the team competition event. She also won gold in the balance beam and the floor exercise. The 17-year-old Korbut captured the hearts of the world and was nicknamed “The Sparrow from Minsk.”
In swimming, American Mark Spitz won seven gold medals and broke seven world records. He built on what he had done four years earlier, winning gold twice in the 1968 Olympics. Spitz’s Olympic record (winning gold seven times) stood until 2008 when Michael Phelps surpassed him by winning eight.
Munich Games Controversies
Another storyline of 1972 was when Rick DeMont of the United States had his gold medal stripped in 400-meter freestyle swimming. DeMont tested positive for traces of the banned substance ephedrine, even though he had declared the medication properly on his medical disclosure form.
The punishment included banning DeMont from swimming in other events that year–including the 1,500-meter freestyle for which he was the then-current world record-holder.
There were positive stories, too, though. Australian swimmer Shane Gould won five medals–gold three times plus silver and bronze. Gould was a teenager at the time, only 15-years old. And USA wrestler Dan Gable won gold in the 67.5 kilos/148 lbs. class without having a single point scored against him. No other athlete has ever accomplished that feat in Olympic wrestling.
Perhaps the oddest circumstance happened when the favorites in the 100-meter run–American world-record holders Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson–didn’t show up for their quarterfinal heats. Sprint coach Stan Wright had been given the wrong starting time. Instead of participating, they viewed TV coverage of what they thought were replays of their preliminary morning races.
Realizing that they were watching live coverage instead, the athletes rushed to the stadium, but it was too late. A third athlete, Robert Taylor, made it just in time and took home the silver medal. Soviet Valeriy Borzov won the gold in the men’s 100 and 200-meter run. Renate Stecher of East Germany won the gold in the women’s 100 and 200-meter run.
More controversy emerged in the pole vault competition when the new ‘Cata-Pole’–used by defending champion Bob Seagren, an American, and Sweden’s Kjell Isaksson–was judged illegal because it contained carbon fibers. Given substitute poles, Isaksson was eliminated after failing to succeed with a qualifying jump. Seagren medaled, but he didn’t claim the top prize as expected, winning silver instead. A follow-up investigation revealed that the confiscated poles did not contain carbon fibers after all.
The Soviet Union was expected to dominate in weightlifting–as it had at the 1968 Olympics–but that didn’t happen in the 90 kilos/198 lbs class. Top Soviet lifter, David Rigert, missed all three attempts in the snatch. That left the door open for Andon Nikolov of Bulgaria, who won gold, and the Bulgarian team went on to take the team title over the heavily favored Soviets. So distraught was Rigert over his failure that he banged his head against the wall backstage and had to be restrained by coaches.
Those were just some of the experiences in 1972 as millions of spectators were enthralled by the intense competition. But then, the unthinkable happened.
Tragedy at the 1972 Munich Summer Games
Before dawn on September 5, a Palestine terrorist group broke into the Olympic Village and took hostage eleven Israeli athletes, coaches, and team officials. Two of the hostages were killed, and a standoff in the Olympic Village lasted for almost 18 hours. A botched rescue attempt followed, and the result was devastating: the remaining Israeli hostages were killed.
Dan Gable remembers the time in his book, A Wrestling Life: “I awoke in my room at the Olympic Village to what I thought were firecrackers…/that/…turned out to be gunfire. When my parents were finally able to get a hold of me, I learned that one of the Israeli athletes killed in the attack was the wrestler Eliezer Halfin, in my same weight class of 67.5 kg.
We weren’t friends, but I knew him. He was an outstanding wrestler and a great person. I had a lot of respect for him. Suddenly, the entire sad situation hit too close to home. With all that was going on, my whole family headed home to Iowa as soon as we were able”.
Being Jewish, swimmer Mark Spitz also left Munich before the closing ceremonies under the advice of Olympic officials, who feared he would be an additional target of those responsible for the Munich massacre.
How and Why?
How and why did this happen? It wasn’t easy to wrap it around my ten-year-old mind. I didn’t understand it any more than I understood the Holocaust. I had friends in school who were Jewish. My maternal grandparents and other relatives had left Germany for America shortly before the Nazi regime took over. How could anyone explain such hatred? All my mother could tell me was that hate was wrong, but it was a sad reality of living in this world.
After much debate and disagreement, it was decided the Olympics would continue. There were many events that I had been looking forward to, but now sports seemed of little importance.
The Games Resume
But the games went on nonetheless. Just 34 hours after the senseless murders, Soviet strongman Vasily Alexeev won gold in the superheavyweight weightlifting competition. I remembered watching Alexeev on the television show Wide World of Sports just two years earlier when he became the first man to clean & jerk 500 lbs. I looked forward to watching him lift in the Olympics but now with much less enthusiasm than before the murders.
In boxing, Cuba was dominant, winning three gold medals, one silver, and a bronze. Heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba won the first of his three gold medals, the other two coming in the 1976 and 1980 Olympics.
The track & field events resumed on September 9th. Frank Shorter, born in Munich, became the first American in 64 years to win the Olympic marathon. As Shorter was nearing the stadium, a German student entered the stadium wearing a track uniform, joined the race, and ran the last kilometer.
The crowd, unaware of what had happened, began cheering him before officials realized the hoax, and security escorted the student off the track. Arriving just seconds later, Shorter was perplexed to see someone ahead of him and hear the fans booing him. Shorter then realized that the boos were directed not at him but at the student being escorted away.
Then there was what is the most controversial game in the history of international basketball. The United States lost to the Soviet Union in the men’s final. The U.S. team appeared to have won by a score of 50–49. However, the final 3 seconds of the game were replayed repeatedly (three times) until the Soviet team came out on top, 51–50, on a lay-up at the buzzer. Feeling that they were cheated of victory, the U.S. team refused to accept their silver medals, which remain held in a vault in Switzerland.
The basketball game was the fourth incident in which American athletes were denied gold medals under suspicious circumstances, including the disqualification of DeMont, missed heats by Hart and Robinson, and the illegal vaulting pole found later to be legal.
In February of 1983, I competed in the David Berger memorial weightlifting meet in Queens, New York. Berger was a weightlifter, and one of the athletes killed at the 1972 Munich games. I didn’t know much about Berger initially, but I learned that he had lived in New York for a brief time. In speaking to some of the people who knew him and trained with him, I learned how well-liked and respected he was. After that, I made it a point to compete in the David Berger memorial every year. It was an honor to do so.
Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond. He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area.