Olympics Summer

1972: Munich, Germany

Mark Spitz made history by winning seven gold medals in swimming, but the 1972 Munich Games will forever be remembered for the kidnapping and murder of Israel athletes by Palestinian militants.
One of the Black September guerrillas who broke into the Munich Olympic Village. (Keystone/Getty Images)

There was a giddy air of optimism surrounding the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics. They boasted the most athletes from the most countries participating in the most events with the most media coverage in the history of the Olympics.

Even the Olympic infrastructure was an architectural masterpiece. Upon being awarded the Games in 1966, Munich organizers spent $650 million US on an intricate tent-like design erected over the bombed-out ruins of the Second World War. It seemed to herald a euphoric and peaceful new era for the Games.

Quick Facts

Number of nations: 121

Number of athletes: 7,134 (1,059 women, 6,075 women)

Number of sports: 23

Number of events: 195

Number of journalists covering the Games: About 4,000

Number of countries winning at least one medal: 48 (new record)

Number of opponents pinned by Soviet wrestler Ivan Yarygin en route to heavyweight gold: 7

Number of gold medals won by U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz: 7

Number of world records set by Spitz: 7

Number of gold medals won by Australian Shane Gould: 3

Number of world records set by Gould: 3

Age of Gould at Munich Games: 15

Age when Gould retired: 16

Age when Gould came out of retirement to swim in 2004 Australian championships: 47

Youngest individual gold medallist ever in athletics event: Ulrike Meyfarth, West Germany, 16 (High jump - tied world record)

Next time Meyfarth won an Olympic medal: 1984 (silver)

First female to win equestrian gold: Liselott Lisenhoff, West Germany (Dressage)

First track and field athlete to compete in six Games: Lia Manoliu, Romania (Discus) Manoliu's placing in 1972: 9th, despite having a longer throw than the one that won her the gold medal in 1968

Black September

And so it seemed until September 5 — 10 days after the Games' triumphant opening. That night, eight Palestinian militants broke into the Israeli team's headquarters in the Olympic Village. Two Israelis were killed immediately and nine others were taken hostage.

The militants demanded access to the world press, passage out of Germany, and freedom for some 200 prisoners in Israel. After 11 tense hours of negotiations with German authorities, the Palestinians, along with their hostages, flew by helicopter to the airport, where the tragedy deepened.

A failed attempt by German police to storm the Palestinians and rescue the hostages ended in a shootout that left all the Israeli hostages, five of the militants, one policeman and a helicopter pilot dead.

A memorial service the next morning drew 80,000 people to the Olympic stadium as the Games were temporarily suspended. But most of the delegations, including the Israelis, agreed that the rest of the Olympics should proceed, and International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage made his famous declaration that "the Games must go on."

The fear of further violence convinced some countries and individuals to leave Munich immediately, and the memory of the events of that September in Munich linger menacingly over the Olympics more than ever today.

East-West tensions

There were other political issues that soured the Munich Games somewhat. In particular, there was extreme tension between the two German teams. West Germany had tried to smooth over its relationship with its Eastern counterpart, but the friendliness cooled with West Germany's well-founded fear of its rivals' potential athletic accomplishments.

The two teams marched separately, but both under the Olympic flag instead of their own, and East Germany thoroughly bested West Germany in the medal standings, 66 medals to 40.

In a classic example of the kinds of gamesmanship that went on between the rival sibling countries, East Germany won all four gold medals in the first whitewater canoe-kayak competition. The fact that East Germany had constructed an exact replica of the Olympic course for training may have had something to do with it.

Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) joined South Africa on the sidelines shortly before the Games opened, as the IOC bowed to pressure from the African nations and the American track and field team, who protested against Rhodesia's racist regime.

Two members of that American track team, Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, won gold and silver, respectively, in the 400 metres and echoed the black power protest staged by Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968. Matthews and Collett refused to stand at attention while the American anthem played during the medal ceremony. As a result, the IOC ordered them out of the Olympic Village.

Olympic developments

Two sports made their return to the games after lengthy hiatuses: Archery was re-introduced after a 52-year absence, and team handball was re-admitted after 36 years.

An Olympic oath for judges was introduced, and a number of new electronic devices were used in Munich, including a triangulation device to measure distances in the athletics throwing events. A less auspicious development was the introduction of the first Olympic mascot — a dachshund.

And as a harbinger of things to come, two athletes and a team were caught out for positive drug tests: a silver-winning Mongolian wrestler, a bronze-winning Spaniard cyclist and a bronze-winning team of cyclists from the Netherlands.

American swimmer Mark Spitz in action during the 200m butterfly final. (Staff/AFP/Getty Images)

Spitz's seven

For a change, the most captivating stories of the Games were not on the track, but in swimming and gymnastics. Even the kidnapping and massacre of Israeli athletes and officials couldn't fully eclipse the unprecedented feats of American swimmer Mark Spitz.

Multiple gold medallists

Mark Spitz, U.S.

7 - Swimming

Melissa Belote, U.S.

3 - Swimming

Shane Gould, Australia

3 - Swimming

Sawao Kato, Japan

3 - Gymnastics

Olga Korbut, Soviet Union

3 - Gymnastics

Valery Borsov, Soviet Union

2 - Athletics

Jerry Heidenreich, U.S.

2 - Swimming

Karin Janz, East Germany

2 - Gymnastics

Gunnar Larsson, Sweden

2 - Swimming

Roland Matthes, East Germany

2 - Swimming

Akinori Nakayama, Japan

2 - Gymnastics

Willem Ruska, Netherlands

2 - Judo

Renate Stecher, East Germany

2 - Athletics

Lyudmila Tourischeva , Soviet Union

2 - Gymnastics

Mitsuo Tsukahara, Japan

2 - Gymnastics

Lasse Viren, Finland

2 - Athletics

The first week was dominated by the brash 22-year-old, who smashed all records for a single Games by winning seven gold medals, four individually and three in relays. He also set world records in each of his events. Including his medals from the 1968 Games, Spitz won a total of nine golds, one silver and one bronze.

Spitz felt disappointed by his meager four medals in 1968, and dove into a rigorous training program that aimed at nothing less than total domination of the pool in Munich.  In Spitz’s mind, the Munich Olympics seemed to represent one big grudge match designed to conquer his failure to live up to his own expectations in 1968.

As the competition drew near, he puzzled over whether to concentrate on the freestyle or butterfly events, and eventually decided to swim both. The tricky part was juggling the schedule of heats and semifinals.

He systematically reeled off victory after victory in freestyle, butterfly and relay events, including an easy win over Canadian Bruce Robertson in the 100m butterfly. He made an early exit after the swimming competition was over, though. German officials persuaded him to leave Munich before the close of the Games, fearing that Spitz, as a highly visible, wildly successful American Jew, might become a target of more anti-Semitic violence.

Other big splashes

In any other year, the big story would have been 15-year-old Australian wunderkind Shane Gould, who proved herself more the heir to Dawn Fraser. Her success rate wasn't as impressive as Spitz's — she competed in all 12 women's events, which is in itself an Olympic record. But she did win three gold medals, all in world-record time, along with a silver and a bronze.

The most thrilling finish would have to go to the showdown between Sweden's Gunnar Larsson and Tim McKee of the U.S. in the 400m individual medley. Larsson was given the nod over McKee by two-thousandths of a second, once it was determined that the timing system could go down to thousandths of a second.

It seemed like splitting hairs, though, and the rules were later revised: if swimmers tied to the hundredth of a second, they would remain tied.

Aside from Spitz and Gould, the biggest celebrity produced by the Munich Games was Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut. She charmed the crowd in Munich and worldwide television audiences with a spritely energy that earned her three gold medals.

At 17, Korbut was not the most talented of the Soviet gymnasts and certainly not the most consistent. As brilliant as she could be on some apparatus, she completely flubbed other events. But even as she became distraught with her failures, she further disarmed a global audience.

Canadian medallists

Bruce Robertson

silver, bronze - Swimming

Leslie Cliff

silver - Swimming

Donna Gurr

bronze - Swimming

Men's 4X100m medley

bronze - Swimming

David Miller, John Ekels, Paul Cote

bronze - Sailing

Among the other highlights in Munich:

  • The Americans were shut out of the 100m and 200m sprint titles: Valery Borzov of the Soviet Union won both men's events and Renate Stecher of East Germany swept the women's events.
  • Lasse Viren revived the Finnish tradition of excellence in the distance events, winning both the 5,000m and 10,000m, despite tripping and falling around the halfway point in the race in the 10,000m, in which he broke the world record.
  • Kip Keino of Kenya won the 1,500m gold and 5,000m silver in 1968 and followed that up with a gold in the 3,000m steeplechase and a silver in the 1,500m in Munich.

Canadian money at par?

Canada won five medals, the same tally as four years earlier in Mexico City. Vancouver-based swimmers accounted for four of them. Aside from Robertson's silver, Leslie Cliff and Donna Marie Gurr won silver in the 400m medley and bronze in the 200m backstroke, respectively. Robertson also teamed up with Robert Kasting, Erik Fish and Bill Mahoney to win bronze in the 4X100m freestyle relay.

Canada had spent $2.5 million on their 1972 Olympic team — a modest sum compared to the athletic budgets of many countries — but there was general disappointment in the results. In hindsight this may have been unfair. Aside from having to overcome a big financial hurdle, the Canadian team was competing against a lot of athletes who were the unwitting (but successful) lab rats in state-sponsored doping programs

The U.S. and Soviet basketball teams tip off in Munich. (Getty Images)

U.S. feels robbed of basketball gold

The United States finally lost the gold in basketball after seven straight Olympic titles, and as far as the Americans were concerned, it took nothing short of larceny to finally part them from their gold.

The American side thought time had run out and that it had won the gold-medal game over the Soviet Union, 50-49. While the Americans celebrated, the Soviets argued that the timekeeper had let the time run down prematurely. The referee agreed and ordered three seconds to be put on the clock.

The Americans were stunned by this turn of events, and the Soviets took advantage, briskly sending the ball the length of the court to their big man, stationed under the hoop. He made the winning basket, and it was the Soviets' turn to rejoice, and the Americans' turn to protest.

Ultimately, the U.S. protest was denied, the Soviets were declared Olympic champions, and the American team, feeling robbed by corrupt or incompetent officiating, refused to accept their silver medals.

And Another Thing...

At the Munich Games, American Ben Peterson won the light-heavyweight freestyle wrestling gold. His brother, John, took the middleweight silver. Four years later in Montreal, John won gold and Ben won the silver.

Medal Table








Soviet Union






United States






East Germany






West Germany











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