OLYMPIC TERROR ATTACK
Triumph and horror — Mark Spitz recalls how 1972 Munich massacre changed his perception of sport
On the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest performances and greatest tragedies in Olympic history, swimmer Mark Spitz reflected on the two days in Munich that changed his life.
No athletes who participated in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich could have known what tragedy was in store at the global showpiece. Swimming great Mark Spitz was among them. His sublime achievements in the pool — perhaps the greatest by an Olympic athlete in a single Games — were overshadowed by the biggest tragedy at an Olympics.
Triumph and despair at the Olympic Games are usually two different sides of the same coin. But in Munich, in the late Bavarian summer of 1972, despair took on an entirely different meaning. This wasn’t about losing a race or missing out on a medal. It was literally about life and death.
In the early hours of 5 September, the Olympic Village was infiltrated by a terrorist group known as Black September, and it changed the nature of international sports events permanently.
The terrorists invaded a block of flats housing the Israeli Olympic team and shot and killed two members of the squad in the first few minutes of the attack. More than 15 hours later, the five terrorists and their hostages were flown by helicopter to a nearby airfield.
From there the group was supposed to fly to the Middle East. But authorities ambushed the terrorists. Before they could neutralise the Black September members, a hand grenade was thrown and all nine Israeli athletes and coaches, as well as a German policeman, were murdered.
It cast a pall over the Games and raised awareness of terror attacks at major sporting events in the years to come.
Spitz was the star of the 1972 Olympic Games. He won seven gold medals and broke seven world records — a feat not even the great Michael Phelps matched. Spitz promptly retired afterwards at the age of 22.
He is now a global sporting ambassador with the Laureus World Sports Foundation. But in 1972 he was a supreme athlete with most of his life ahead of him.
Shaped his future
The day after winning his final gold, he was thrust into the unfolding tragedy of the hostage crisis.
Spitz looked back on the contrasting emotions he experienced in West Germany, and how his work as a founding member of the Laureus Academy has become part of the legacy he celebrates on this anniversary.
“Fifty years ago, less than 24 hours after winning my seventh Olympic gold, I was caught up in the confusion and horror which saw the death of 11 Israeli athletes,” Spitz said when speaking to Laureus.com.
“That day saw the greatest sporting event turned into a massacre and it turned my perception of sport on its head. It’s taken 50 years for me to truly say I now fully understand the true inspiration and power of sport.”
No champion has ever had as dramatic an exit from the arena as that of Spitz following his final gold-medal swim. Having won four individual golds (100m and 200m butterfly, 100m and 200m freestyle) and three more in relay teams (4x100m and 4x200m freestyle, 4x100m medley), an exhausted Spitz was taken out for dinner by two journalists.
Unknown to him, at the same time he returned home late that night, eight members of the Black September terrorist group had entered the Olympic Village.
Removed to safety
Spitz was still unaware of the breaking story as he walked into what he thought would be a press conference about his achievements the following morning. Because the seven-time champion was Jewish, it was feared he could be a target and soon Spitz was secretly rushed to safety under armed guard.
“After the press conference I was sitting in the Olympic Village, in my room, watching TV and there was constant comment: ‘We believe Mark Spitz, who finished his programme in swimming, has been removed and is in Italy.’ About 20 minutes later: ‘No, that information was wrong, he’s somewhere in Sweden.’
“I don’t know if they were saying that to get people off the scent, because I was still in my room in the Olympic Village. It took a few hours to have a definitive plan.
“My coach and I were put in the back seat of a car and they told me to crouch down and they put this blanket over me. After about five minutes they told me to sit up, and we were driven to the airport and then we were on a plane to London.
“When we got to London there was an armed guard outside the door, all night long. Before we went to bed, he said: ‘You’re dangerous to be around.’
“I go: ‘Well, I was actually thinking the same thing about you.’
“We didn’t know what was going on in Germany. When we woke up in the morning, the guard told us what happened — in that late evening, everything had happened in the military base, where the remaining athletes were killed.”
A botched ambush at an airfield resulted in the death of every one of the remaining hostages, a West German policeman and five of the terrorists. The link between Spitz’s Olympic story and that of the Israeli team has survived for half a century.
“Thirteen years later I had an opportunity to meet a couple of the wives of the slain athletes when I was in Israel and two of their children and they related to me in a big way: One, that I was Jewish; and No 2 that I was at the same Olympics with their fathers,” Spitz recalls.
“It was a terrible tragedy, not only for those athletes, but for the Olympic movement and for the families in particular. We are still talking about it today.”
Spitz also highlighted the mental health challenges faced by today’s champions. He said that if he had the option to continue in elite sport beyond the Munich Games in 1972, instead of retiring aged 22, he, too, may have found it hard to maintain such dedicated focus without facing the same issues.
In recent years, athletes including Naomi Osaka, Ben Stokes and Chloe Kim have stepped back from competition to protect their mental health.
With a strict amateur code in place in 1972, Spitz did not see any alternative other than retiring. And this, according to one of the founding members of the Laureus Academy, is one of the reasons he can today look back on his Olympic achievements after 50 healthy and happy years outside of the pool.
“Athletes that have been extremely successful are placed on a podium and they are admired and revered,” said Spitz. “And 15 minutes later, they walk off into the sunset.
“And that’s hard, to walk off into the sunset, because there are not going to be those types of moments. Nobody is going to recognise you and put you on a podium for achieving your goal [outside of sport].
“I have never experienced the sort of things that we see some athletes going through, but I didn’t have those opportunities [to compete professionally]. I think I might have experienced something similar had there been professionalism in my sport that projected me into continually competing beyond the age of 22.”
Spitz was full of admiration for David Popovici, the Romanian freestyle sensation who broke a 13-year-old world record in the 100m freestyle at the age of 17 — the same age Spitz was when he claimed his first global mark.
With the Olympics returning to Los Angeles in 2028, Spitz believes the youngster still has a huge capacity to get even faster.
“He’s a great swimmer and he’s a great sprinter. I was told when I broke my first world record from my coach, George Haines: ‘You just went from the hunter to the hunted’. Now he [Popovici] is going to be hunted by everybody else.
“He reminds me of myself in that his body is not fully developed from a strength point of view. He is swimming freestyle and that is a strength event; I just can’t imagine what he’s going to be able to do.
“I’m happy for him and I would not be happy if I was competing with him: turn out the lights, because he’s just exited stage left.
“He’s 17 now, he’ll be 19 at the next Olympics and only 23 when the Olympics come back to Los Angeles in 2028. He could even go on to Brisbane [in 2032].”
Spitz was one of the inaugural members of the Laureus Academy and considers his work with Laureus Sport for Good programmes all over the world to be a fundamental part of the legacy he is celebrating on this anniversary.
“This isn’t about developing Olympians, although that could happen,” he said. “It’s giving an opportunity to people that didn’t have a chance.” DM