ATLANTA BOMB: Terror at the games: the Munich legacy

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The Independent Online
Terror at the Olympics is not new. At the 1972 Munich games, Palestinian guerrillas kidnapped nine members of the Israeli team. All the Israelis died in the gunfire and grenade explosions of a rescue attempt, writes Vanessa Thorpe.

Four years earlier the opening of the Olympics in Mexico City had been overshadowed by the massacre of 260 student protesters by troops, but this took place 10 days before the games began.

It is the Munich massacre of sportsmen that remains the darkest Olympic legend. In the early morning of 5 September, guerrillas belonging to a group called Black September scaled the walls of the three-storey Israeli pavilion in the Olympic village and burst into the sleeping quarters with machine-guns blazing.

They had managed to break through a security cordon which, following a tip-off, had only just been strengthened by 250 plain-clothes police officers. Moshe Weinberg, a 33-year-old wrestling coach, was killed instantly and Yosef Romano, a weightlifter, was fatally wounded as he held a door shut while team-mates escaped; 15 got out through windows and side doors, but 10 were taken hostage. One of these, Gad Tsabari, made a dash for freedom, successfully dodging bullets as he ran.

A siege developed. The terrorists were demanding the release of 200 Palestinians held in Israeli jails and wanted safe passage out of Germany. Willy Brandt, the West German Chancellor, took charge of negotiations and told them they would be flown to an Arab country, along with their hostages.

That night they were taken to the nearby Furstenfeldbruck military airport, where Bavarian police made a rescue attempt. Their marksmen opened fire as the terrorists walked out on to the airstrip.

But the operation failed tragically and the hostages, four kidnappers and a German policeman were killed in the gun battle that followed. Three terrorists were captured; one escaped.

It emerged that the gang had been drawn from a secret cell inside Al Fatah, the main faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and, at that time, the most prominent Arab guerrilla group. (Today, however, this former faction might consider itself represented at the Atlanta Olympics in the shape of the Palestinian team.)

The name of the terrorist group, Black September, was a reference to King Hussein's expulsion of Palestinian activists from Jordan two years earlier. The organisation was thought to have had fewer than 100 members and strong links with German underground movements, including the Baader- Meinhoff gang.

In spite of the outrage, the games continued and, in terms of sporting achievement, are probably best remembered for US swimmer Mark Spitz's record seven gold medals.