In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Olympics and the UN were the twin vaccines of postwar international hope – inoculations of optimism to make sure World War I and World War II were not followed by World War III. The modern Olympics, relaunched in Athens in 1896, built on the Disneyfied Greek history elementary schools taught then – long on colorful gods and enduring democratic ideals, short on the brutality and inequality that coddled those philosopher-kings.
Seeing sport as an apolitical forum for excellence, Olympics fanatics hoped that nationalists would get their jollies by going for the gold rather than invading their neighbors. And, if tensions nevertheless arose, UN groupies trusted them to talk it all out in that big blue domino-looking building in New York’s Turtle Bay.
Then came the 1972 Munich Olympics. They began, August 26, on a redemptive note, in a democratic, apologetic West Germany, repenting for its Nazi crimes. This was the good Germany, more likable than its severe, repressive, Communist East German sibling. “The cheerful games” – the official motto – would celebrate the world’s progress since the 1936 Hitler Games, when the Nazis hijacked the Berlin Olympics to champion Aryan supremacy and foment Jew-hatred.
Despite disdaining the fake “artistic” sports that are reliant on judges’ discretion, like diving and gymnastics, my buddies and I followed these Olympics religiously. The lithe gymnasts, bulging muscle-men, and perfectly proportioned track stars wowed us. Following the script, we rooted wildly for the Americans. Nevertheless, we could transcend the Cold War enough to be dazzled by the charismatic Soviet gymnast, Olga Korbut, who bounced back after a devastating fall to win two gold medals.
Meantime, Mark Spitz stirred Americans’ pride. This American-Jewish pre-dental student swam his way to an unprecedented seven gold medals. Spitz was attractive and articulate, defying stereotypes as a “Jewish Brainiac” turned pin-up boy.
After Spitz won his seventh gold
EVERYTHING CHANGED shortly after Spitz won his seventh gold. Early the next morning, September 5, Palestinian terrorists took nine Israeli Olympians hostage and killed two others in their opening assault. My older brother and I spent the day glued to the television for all the wrong reasons. Jim McKay, that sportscaster from ABC’s Wide World of Sports we normally loved to laugh at, did an amazing job reporting. He covered that crime on air for 14 hours straight without a break.
Suddenly, the Munich Olympics were defined by the Palestinian terrorists in those ghoulish stocking caps and the discordant sweat suits, who sauntered into the Olympic village. After negotiating for hours, the Germans botched the rescue operation. Ultimately, the terrorists murdered their nine Israeli hostages and a German police officer.
During the Munich Massacre, historical images, ideas, and traumas collided. Germans were now protecting Jews. Jews were now athletes, not scholars. And the Middle East’s border wars went global, as terrorism exported conflicts from the world’s margins to the most vulnerable, normally peaceful venues – even the Olympics themselves.
Reeling, mourning these young Israeli heroes, one of whom tried barricading the door with his body, it was obvious to everyone I knew that these Olympic games should end. We didn’t know it at the time, but fearing more anti-Jewish violence, the Germans smuggled Spitz out of Munich. He and his coach were whisked to the airport, lying in the back of a car, covered by a blanket. Even back home in California, the Secret Service protected Spitz for the next three months.
This tragedy offered the International Olympic Committee (IOC) an opportunity to do penance for green-lighting the infamous 1936 Hitler games.
Yet, like something out of a novel, Avery Brundage, the same mean-spirited, severe-looking, antisemitic IOC president who approved Hitler’s hosting then, insisted the “games must go on” in Germany 36 years later.
The games continued – and many people’s faith in the international order, in the new post-Auschwitz world the Olympics and the UN promised, crumbled.
REMARKABLY, THE more Palestinian terrorists terrorized innocents, the more international recognition their cause achieved. Two years later, the UN welcomed the head of the PLO. Yasser Arafat, the grandfather of modern terrorism, became the first representative of a non-member organization to address the General Assembly – sporting a holster to back up his menacing tone.
In describing this “dramatic and tension-fraught” day, The New York Times reported: “Cameramen and other people who were near Mr. Arafat noticed that he was wearing a holster under his bulging windbreaker.” Characteristically, a PLO spokesman asserted “that the holster, if there had been one, had been empty.”
Since then, the UN has often functioned as the Third World dictators’ debating society, while sports have become increasingly politicized. In 1953, 55% of Americans told Gallup pollsters the UN “was doing a good job.” By 1975, only 32% approved – as the slogan “get the US out of the UN, and the UN out of the US” spread.
On this sad 50th anniversary, we mourn the 11 murdered Israeli athletes and the Western German police officer. We mourn the thousands murdered by terrorism globally, as the PLO’s brutality-driven success inspired terrorist copycats worldwide. But we also mourn the loss of faith: the postwar world order that was built on such high hopes now appears to be a delusion, mocked periodically at the Olympics and almost daily in the UN.
The writer is a presidential historian and the author of 13 books, including Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism. Most recently, he edited Theodor Herzl’s Zionist Writings, the inaugural volumes of The Library of the Jewish People. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy.