Munich Olympics myths and realities

On Sunday at the AACI Netanya we went to hear a presentation by one of the Israeli athletes who survived the massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Yes, although a total of 11 Israelis were killed, 7 survived. Dan Alon was a fencer who marched with the Israeli team into the Stadium that fateful August, and with the rest of them enjoyed the first ten days of Olympic bliss. Then suddenly on the 11th night their world was rent asunder when a group of six Palestinian terrorists invaded their compound, murdered two of them and held nine hostage. What happened after that is well documented, the hostages and terrorists were transported to a nearby airfield and subsequently all of the hostages and three of the terrorists were killed in a shootout with German police. But Dan Alon and the other six athletes that survived have never told their story publicly before. In July 2012 they were invited by the German history channel to return to Munich as a group to commemorate the event and to tell their stories.

They toured the sites, including the apartments in Connollystrasse where the terrifying experience began at 4.30 am that fateful night. Luckily the Israelis were housed in several apartments, and the terrorists only managed to capture those in two of the apartments. It should be emphasized that incredible as it may seem today there was NO security at the site, neither the German police nor the Israeli government made any special security arrangements for them. The Olympic Village was wide open and in effect anyone could walk in. The terrorists simply scaled the fence and simply walked in with their guns. What happened next is related in chilling detail in a documentary entitled “The Eleventh Day: the Survivors of Munich ’72,” made before the current Olympic Games by the German History Channel. Alon showed a copy with English dialog of what was shown on German TV to commemorate the terrible event..

One of the incidents related that one of the survivors who were hiding in the next apartment was a marksman, who had his rifle with him. He took it out and was able to see the leader of the terrorist gang standing on the balcony when after some time the police arrived and he engaged in dialog with them. The marksman had a clear shot that he could have taken, but then realized that if he did shoot the terrorist leader then the other terrorists might shoot the hostages. He decided not to do it, because he hoped the negotiations would succeed and he did not want to be responsible for any more killings and if he revealed their location then he would be endangering not only himself but also his six other compatriots. Instead they chose to run away, a choice that has haunted them ever since.

After the film Alon spoke movingly and related his feelings about the hostage taking and the murders. He has published a book entitled “Munich Memoir” (that is available at His first point is a crucial one, in ancient Greece, the Olympic Games were desgnated as a time of cessation of all hostilities, and the Israeli athletes and apparently their Government and their hosts had assumed, naievely as it turned out, that the Arabs would abide by this. But, there was no basis for this assumption, it was not enforced in any way by the modern Olympic movement that began in 1896, and in fact during the two World Wars the Olympic Games were suspended not the fighting. Further, there had been examples of wars (Korea, Vietnam) continuing during previous Games, although the Games themselves had never been attacked before. Certainly Arab culture does not have any concept of a cessation of hostilities during the Olympic Games or any other time.

Also, the tacit assumption by the Olympic organizing committee was that this was an attack specifically on the Israelis and not on the Olympic Games as a whole. So after one day of suspending the Games and a public commemoration, the Games went on, and they have done so ever since. However, the consequences of these killings was that now there are extensive security measures, the Israeli athletes live in a secure location and the British Government has mobilized ca. 30,000 police, army and volunteers to secure the London Olympic Games this year. This is the true legacy of the Munich massacre. It should be noted that the Israeli Government subsequently hunted down and killed all of the terrorists and organizers of the Munich massacre. Dan Alon will be touring the US to tell his story.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.