March 06, 2019 5 min read

Over 7,000 athletes from 122 countries took part in the 1972 Olympic Games, the largest yet, setting records in all categories, with 195 events and 7,134 athletes from 121 National Olympic Committees, with new and renewed events, including Men’s indoor handball and slalom canoeing for the first time and archery returning for the first time since 1920.

Those track-and-field athletes, gymnasts and swimmers who remain prominent in the memories of the public over half a century later and who wrote themselves into Olympic history for their combination of professional brilliance and force of personality include swimmers Mark Spitz and Shane Gould, athletes Lasse Viren and Valery Borzov, gymnast Olga Korbut and boxer Teofilo Stevenson.

Valery Borzov of the USSR won Gold in both the 100- and 200 metres and Finn Lasse Virén did the same in the 5,000- and 10,000-metres. Californian Mark Spitz won seven Gold medals (three in relays) - the most by any athlete in a single Olympics at the time - and Australian Shane Gould won three Golds, a Silver and a Bronze in the women’s events.

Olga Korbut’s performances remain perhaps the most prominent memory of the 1972 Olympic Games themselves, the significantly-improved television coverage from four years previously projecting her smiling face into hundreds of millions of living rooms across the world. She won three gold medals in the balance beam, floor exercise, and team competitions and a silver medal in the uneven bars.

Mark Spitz made Olympic history, winning seven Golds, breaking the world record in all seven events, wearing neither goggles nor swimming cap and retaining the most talked- about moustache in sports history. Spitz considered the lack of goggles as irrelevant - ‘We did just fine’ - later referring to the ‘strange... and different... head position’ which he assumed in the water when he wore them. Spitz had intended to shave off his moustache before the Olympic trials in Chicago, but changed his mind when ‘It didn’t seem to hinder me whatsoever and maybe, in one sense, the commotion around the fact I had the moustache was distracting enough to give me an edge over my competitors’.

Once he had arrived in Munich the experience Spitz had courtesy of one of the USSR coaches convinced him to keep the facial hair. When asked, he told the coach that he was not going to shave it off, having decided previously that he would, before his first heat the following day. When asked further whether he thought it slowed him down, Spitz answered, ‘This moustache deflects the water away from my mouth and allows me to get a lot lower and more streamline in the stroke and therefore less likely to swallow water, and it allows me to swim faster and helped me break a couple of world records last month.’ within a year all of the USSR men’s swimming team had grown moustaches.

The Soviets had also effectively spied on Spitz - via underwater windows in the pool while he was warming up - and when he became aware of this he effected an extremely awkward stroke, as if he were a beginner, convincing the Soviet coach who spoke to him when he had finished that it suited him and he had been practising the new technique since the US Olympic trials in Chicago earlier in the year. Spitz’s first event was the 200m butterfly, in which he won Gold and broke the world record. His confidence grew as the Games progressed and his mind-games continued. He played the hypochondriac before events and would complain of pain in his shoulders and back to other countries’ swimmers.

He didn’t object when the media put it out that he wouldn’t be taking part in the last event, the 100m freestyle because he was worried that it might undue his perfect six-out-of-six Golds and world records. He won number seven and broke the World record as well. By the end of Munich 1972 Spitz was a nine-time Olympic champion, having won two Golds at the Mexico City 1968 Games.

Sadly the 1972 Olympics will also be forever remembered for the wrong reasons. Eight Palestinian terrorists, the so-called Black September group, managed to steal into the Olympic Village on September 5 and kill two members of the Israeli team. Nine other Israelis were held hostage as the terrorists bargained with the West German government for the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel and the Red Army Faction based in West Germany, headed by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof.

All of the hostages, five of the Black September group, and a West German policeman were shot dead or blown up in the failed rescue attempt. The Games were suspended for a day while a memorial service for the victims was held at the Olympic Stadium. International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage ’s decision that the Games continue met with global disapproval. All of the appalling events in those few hours resulted in increased security measures in the Olympic Villages and competition venues from 1976 onwards.

As people filed in for the memorial service for the nine murdered Israelis and the German police officer, King Constantine of Greece - a member of the IOC - was approached by Jesse Owens, who had won four Gold medals in the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and who insisted that ‘The Games must go on’. Those murdered in the accommodation block where the Israeli athletes were staying included Moshe Weinberg , a wrestling coach, and Yossef Romano , a weightlifter.

Those shot dead and killed by hand-grenade in or next to the helicopters waiting to take at Furstenfeldbruck were Friedman and David Berger , weightlifters, Yakov Springer, a weightlifting judge, Eliezer Halfin and Mark Slavin, wrestlers, Yossef Gutfreund , a wrestling referee, Kehat Shorr, a shooting coach, Andre Spitzer, a fencing coach, Amitzur Shapira, a track coach, and Anton Fliegerbauer, a German police officer.

Israeli swimmer Avraham Melamed survived the attack in a neighboring apartment, and spoke later about the events connected with the atrocities committed by Black September, ‘I feel a little bit guilty. My friends died. I'm not a victim. I'm a survivor. They say there was no security. The truth is that the people there did not have guns but it was much better protected than Tokyo 1964, where you could get everywhere, and in Mexico City 1968. The day after they let us visit the room where (Black September) kept our friends. All of their belongings were strewn and there was a huge pool of blood. It was like a dream that you observe from the outside. You want to feel something but all you feel is anger. The Olympics were a virgin phenomenon. It's not a virgin any more. Now you have to think about security. Now you have to think about terrorism. Now you have to plan for it. It comes at an enormous price.’


Remember the 1972 Olympic games with this vintage Olympic poster from the 1972 Olympics in Munich 

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