Mark Spitz Remembers the 1972 Olympics
By Evan Weiner
July 3, 2010
(New York, N. Y.) -- The news that came Saturday should have reopened old wounds in the inner sanctum of the International Olympic Committee. Mohammed Oudeh who was the strategist behind the attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics died in Damascus, Syria at the age of 72.
The 1972 Olympics should have ended with the attack but it didn't because the International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage said, "The Games Must Go On" after a day of mourning. Brundage just before the 1972 Munich Games spoke glowingly of the 1936 Berlin Games, the Games of Adolf Hitler, as being the finest ever.
Brundage probably wasn't too happy that Mark Spitz, an American Jew, was the star attraction of the 1972 Games. Spitz won seven gold medals and set a new world record in each of the seven events: the 100 meter freestyle, the 200 meter freestyle, the 100 meter butterfly, the 200 meter butterfly, the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay, the 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay and the 4 x 100 meter medley relay.
Because Spitz was an American Jew, he could have been a high profile target in the Olympic Village. The attack took place after the swimming events wrapped up on September 5. Eight Palestinian terrorists belonging to the Black September group broke into the Olympic Village and took eleven Israeli athletes, coaches and officials hostage in their residences. Two of the hostages were killed in the first moments after the break-in. The standoff in the Olympic Village lasted for almost 18 hours.
Late in the evening, German authorities were able to get the terrorists to agree to leave the compound with their hostages and transferred by helicopter to the military airport of Fürstenfeldbruck so they could board a plane bound for an undetermined Arab country. The German authorities had a plan to ambush the terrorists at the airport but the rescue attempt failed and all of the Israeli hostages were killed.
In a 1999 interview, Spitz told me that he was initially unaware of what was happening in the Olympic Village.
"The swimming program had stopped," said Spitz. "I swam all of my events and that evening---the last day of competition was on a Monday and this happened Tuesday on a morning. Swimming was through so I didn't have to compete anymore."
Spitz was in the Olympic Village on Tuesday with the other athletes but was holding a news conference to discuss the seven gold medals he had won.
"Yeah, yeah, of course," said Spitz who confirmed that he was in the village when the break-in occurred. "I had a press conference right afterwards on Tuesday and that was when everyone told me about this Israeli tragedy or the thing that was happening at the time, it hadn't turned into a major tragedy at the moment at least at that time, they didn't know much about it.
"Then the next day, I was whisked away."
With that, Mark Spitz was put onto a plane and sent home.
He was out of harm's way but Brundage needed to make some quick decisions. On September 6, there was a memorial service attended by 80,000 spectators and 3,000 athletes in the Olympic Stadium. Incredibly, Brundage said little about the murdered athletes in his speech. The President of the Munich Organizing Committee Willi Daume wanted to cancel the remainder of the Games, but Brundage said no and during his stadium speech uttered the now famous Olympic phrase. "The games must go on, and we must... and we must continue our efforts to keep them clean, pure and honest." The Israeli government and Israeli Olympic team chef de mission Shmuel Lalkin tacitly supported Brundage.
The Games did go on and in the 38 years since, the International Olympic Committee has simply ignored the terrorist attack in the Olympic Village which took the lives of 11 Israeli athletes and one West German policeman. Over the years, the IOC has given some vague reasons as to why there has not been a remembrance of the Munich attack. As always the case with the IOC, there seems to be a spineless jellyfish aspect when it comes to the 1972 Munich attack, the 1996 Atlanta bombing and the 2010 death of a luge competitor in Vancouver.
The IOC apparently according to one British Broadcasting Corporation story is "afraid to alienate other members of the Olympic community."
There are markers in Munich at the Olympic Stadium and at the apartments that once served as the home for athletes in the former Munich Olympics Village. There is also a memorial plaque that is attached to one of the light towers at the Olympic Stadium that was used for the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia.
In 1935, Avery Brundage was the President of the United States Olympic Committee. In December 1935, Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, the President of the Amateur Athletic Union, urged Brundage to boycott the 1936 Berlin Games because “Nazi Germany is endeavoring to use the Eleventh Olympiad to serve the necessities and interests of the Nazi regime rather than the Olympic ideals.” Brundage said no and the Americans went to Berlin with 23 Jewish team members and performed in front of Hitler.
Brundage was a member of the America First Committee (as was Charles Lindbergh, Walt Disney and Gerald Ford), a group that did not want America to get involved in the war in Europe which eventually led to World War II. Brundage did not think the Olympics should be used for protests and threw out American runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith from the Olympic Village in Mexico City in 1968 after they gave the Black Power salute on the podium after winning medals. Brundage did not have a problem with German salutes at Olympic events in 1936. Brundage had Carlos and Smith suspended from the American team. Brundage also was against the exclusion of Rhodesia from the Olympic Games because he didn't believe the country should be penalized for its apartheid-like racial policies.
Brundage had a disdain for women athletes as well and wanted to keep women out of the Olympics.
Brundage had a major role in preventing two prominent Jewish athletes, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, from participating in the 4 x 100 meter relay in Berlin. According to Glickman, Brundage came up to him and Stoller in the morning before the race and said that they didn't have to run and that the two would be replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalf.
Everyone who knew Marty from that day in 1936 until his death in 2001 would be told the same story. "Brudage didn't want the Fuhrer (Hitler) to be embarrassed with us winning the gold medal." Owens and Metcalf were part of the gold medal winning relay.
The Games Must Go On and they did and have since September 1972. Perhaps IOC President Jacques Rogge will use the 40th anniversary of the attack as a milestone to formally recognize what happened on September 4 and 5 in Munich in the Olympics history. Chances are rather slim though because the IOC would rather forget than remember.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Business and Politics of Sports." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org