The 1972 Summer Olympics: Remembering the Worst Sports Tragedy of All-Time

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The 1972 Summer Olympics: Remembering the Worst Sports Tragedy of All-Time
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Ever since there have been sports, there have been sports tragedies. A tragedy is a rare occurrence in the sports world. For a tragedy to occur something devastating must take place.

On Mar. 1, 2009 the world got a reminder of what a sports tragedy can feel like. Two professional football players, Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith, along with two others, were lost at sea.

The men were on a fishing trip that ventured too far off the coast on too small of a boat. The search for the missing boaters was called off after three days of searching.

There have been other sports tragedies that have been much worse than this though. The crash of Southern Airways Flight 932 is another case that can be categorized as a sports tragedy.

On Nov. 14, 1970, 75 members of the University of Marshall football team were on board when it crashed. Football players, coaches, staff, and community members were all on board.

Both incidents will likely go down as two of the more tragic sporting news stories of all time, but both pale in comparison to what happened in the 1972 Summer Olympics.

German President Gustav Heinemann had a vision. He saw a peaceful and smooth-going summer games, but he was sadly mistaken.

The much anticipated event was to be held in Munich, Germany; this was the first chance that Germany had to host the event in 36 years, the last time being 1936.

When the 1936 games were played, Nazism was thriving in Germany with Adolph Hitler at the helm. (www.olympic.org)

Hitler had seen the Olympics as an opportunity to show off how superior his Aryan race was compared to others.

The term “Aryan” was used mostly by white supremacists to describe their race but Hitler used the term to describe “Pure” Germans, those who did not have any Jewish decedents.

While Hitler wanted to use the Olympics as a chance to show off his Aryan race, the games were seen more as a chance for people to try to heal some of the wounds that he had caused so many others.

The 1972 Summer Games offered Germany a chance to showcase their nation as a peaceful representative, unlike the Nazis' hidden agenda over the previous 36 years.

The 1972 games were set to be the largest yet; 121 nations supplied a total of 7,173 athletes, with 152 events to be played.

However, the 1972 Summer Olympics will be remembered for anything but peace, which was unfortunate for those who sought out unity at the '72 games.

In the weeks before the games were set to begin, many of the athletes and trainers became worried about their safety and well-being, mainly because of the host country and Hitler’s connection to the Holocaust.

The Israeli participants were especially concerned about their safety, many of whom had direct connections with the Holocaust. They were either holocaust survivors themselves, or had family members that had survived. (www.Time.com)

On Aug. 26, 1972, the Olympic torch had been lit and the games were ready to begin. For the Israeli people it was a day of relief. All the events went on as scheduled and there were no major setbacks. It wasn’t until early morning on Sept. 5 that the worst thing imaginable happened. (www.cbsnews.com)

At approximately 4:00 in the morning, eight terrorists that were part of a Palestinian terrorist organization hopped a six-foot fence surrounding the Olympic village, as the Israeli athletes slept.

The terrorists were seen by a few people, but no one thought anything of it because they were dressed up in sweatshirts and sweatpants. It wasn’t uncommon to see athletes running around early in the morning to prepare for an event.

Immediately after the group of terrorists jumped the fence, they headed straight towards 31 Connollystrasse, the apartments where a group of Israelis were staying.

It was 4:30 am by the time the terrorists broke into apartments one and three. The men smashed the windows and broke into the room, several Israelis resisted, a handful were able to escape though the window, and two were killed.

Nine total were captured and taken hostage. (www.cbsnews.com)

It was 5:00 am when police were alerted of the news that attacks were underway in the Olympic village. The reports spread quickly and soon became international news.

The first interaction that the terrorists had with police came in the form of a note; it was a list of demands. They wanted hundreds of prisoners released from German and Israeli prisons, and they wanted it to happen by 9:00 that morning.

After hours of back and forth negotiations, the deadline had been pushed back to noon. After the noon-deadline had passed, negotiators were able postpone the time on three different occasions.

By 5:00 pm, a total of 12 hours had passed, and the eight terrorists were starting to feel that their demands were not going to be met. (www.cbsnews.com)

The eight men quickly changed their strategy; they now wanted two airplanes to fly the hostages and themselves to Egypt, with the hope that a change of location would help their demands to be met.

At first German negotiators agreed, but soon after they realized that they couldn’t let the men leave with the hostages.

German police wanted this standoff to end sooner than later so they quickly created Operation Sunshine, a plan where police would storm the apartments to try and save the hostages.

Unfortunately for the Germans, it was well documented by the media and was aired on international television before they could go forth.

The terrorists saw the plan on live television which squashed any hope that the Germans had of a rescue attempt in the apartment. (www.cbsnews.com)

The Germans quickly regrouped and planned another trap for the terrorists at the Furstenfeldbruck airport. The eight terrorists were transported with the hostages by helicopter to the airport with snipers waiting for them.

When the terrorists arrived at the airport they quickly realized it was a trap. A deadly gunfight broke out, killing two terrorists and one policeman.

German officers ordered armored cars to help end this disaster. Sadly, the armored cars never arrived because they were stuck in traffic. The disaster came to an end when the men realized it was a trap.

As they were boarding the plane they realized something was amiss. Realizing that the end was near for them, the men sprinted back to the helicopter to kill the hostages.

The helicopter was sprayed with rounds of bullets and one grenade. After the ordeal, there were three wounded terrorists and no survivors. (www.cbsnews.com)

The 1972 Summer Olympics will go down as one of the more horrific tragedies in sports history. One of the more disturbing aspects of the ordeal came after the smoke cleared, surprisingly enough.

The Olympics were postponed for no more than one day. People across the world were upset and disappointed that the games resumed so soon.

"Incredibly, they're going on with it,” wrote Jim Murray of the LA Times. (www.cbsnews.com)

The public’s opinion on the matter was split. Some felt that the games shouldn’t resume so soon and that the athletes should go off to a safer place.

Others thought that it would be best if the Olympics continued as quickly as possible, with the thought that resuming the event so soon would distract the world from what just happened, the worst tragedy in sports history.

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