1972: Terrorists attack the Israeli delegation in Munich.
When the Olympics returned to Germany in 1972 the West Germans were eager to put their country’s history of anti-semitism behind them.
But through little fault of the games’ German organizers (you can blame them for low security, but it’s uncertain whether another host would have done differently), the 1972 Olympics in Munich were the site of the worst tragedy in Olympic history. And the victims were Jewish athletes, coaches, and officials from Israel.
During the second week of the Games, members of a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September infiltrated the Olympic village and broke into an apartment housing members of the Israeli delegation. Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano were killed in a struggle with the terrorists.
Black September then took nine people hostage:
- wrestlers Eliezer Halfin and Mark Slavin
- weighlifters David Berger and Ze’ev Friedman
- fencer Andre Spitzer
- sharpshooting coach Kehat Shorr
- track and field coach Amitzur Shapira
- wrestling official Yossef Gutfreund
- weightlifting official Yakov Springer.
Black September demanded the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel. Israel refused to negotiate with the terrorists. West German officials offered Black September large sums of money in exchange for the hostages, but the terrorists weren’t interested.
During the negotiations some of the hostages told German authorities that they would be willing to be taken to an Arab country, so long as the Germans made arrangements to guarantee their safety.
German authorities pretended to agree to let the terrorists take the hostages to Cairo, Egypt and allowed them to travel to a nearby NATO airbase. German police and snipers planned to take down the terrorists and rescue the hostages at the airport.
Due to a breakdown in communication and a missed shot by one of the snipers, the rescue attempt failed. In the chaos that followed, all nine Israeli hostages were killed. German police killed five of the eight terrorists and apprehended the other three.
Less than two months later, terrorists hijacked a West German passenger jet and demanded the release of the three surviving Black September operatives. The West German government agreed. The trio was taken to Libya, where they received a hero’s welcome and held a press conference to give their side of the story.
Furious, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir secretly ordered the Mossad (Israel’s intelligence agency) to track down and kill anyone involved in planning the attack in Munich. For more than a decade, the Mossad found and killed dozens of Black September leaders and other Palestinian terrorists.
The Games continued, though the remaining Israeli athletes and other Jewish athletes—including American swimmer Mark Spitz, who’d won seven gold medals and set seven world records the 1972 Olympics—left Munich.
Other athletes and teams left because they felt it was inappropriate to continue the Olympics after a tragedy of that scale. The Israeli government and Olympic officials endorsed the decision to resume competition.
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1972: Officials do all sorts of shady things during the final three seconds of the basketball gold medal game.
Three days after the Munich Massacre, the United States faced the Soviet Union in the basketball gold medal game.
Since basketball had become an Olympic sport in 1936, the American team had never lost a game. But over the previous two decades, the Soviet Union had established itself as the world’s second best team. The Soviet Union won silver in basketball in 1952, 1956, 1960, and 1964 and bronze in 1968.
The Soviets in 1972 went undefeated in group play and beat a very good Cuba team—whose only loss to that point was to the U.S. and who would go on to win the bronze medal—in the semifinals of the medal round. The Soviets faced the Americans in the gold medal game. Both teams were 8-0 in Olympic play.
With only seconds remaining on the clock, the Soviets had a 49-48 lead and possession of the ball. American Doug Collins (yes, the Doug Collins who currently coaches the 76ers) stole the in-bounds pass. Soviet guard Zurab Sakandelidze fouled Collins hard to prevent an easy layup. Collins went to the foul line and hit his first free throw, tying the game.
As he began his shooting motion for the second free throw, the horn sounded. Collins hit the shot anyway, giving the Americans a one-point lead and the Soviets three seconds to go the length of the court and answer.
According to the rules in place at the time, the ball was live following a made free throw. But that didn’t stop Soviet assistant coach Sergei Bashkin from leaving the bench and walking over to the scorer’s table to argue that head coach Vladimir Kondrashin had called for a timeout prior to the second free throw. (According to then secretary general of FIBA Renato William Jones, the scorer recognized the timeout but didn’t inform the referees until Collins was in the process of shooting his second foul shot. Thus the ill-timed horn.)
Bashkin was not successful in convincing officials to retroactively award the Soviet team a timeout. But he was successful in creating enough of a disturbance that led referee Renato Righetto to stop play with one second on the clock. And Bashkin somehow avoided getting a technical foul for leaving the bench area.
While the officials sorted things out, the Soviet coaches and players designed an in-bounds play.
Instead of resuming play with one second on the clock. FIBA’s Jones came out of the stands and told officials to reset the clock to where it was following the second made free throw. The officials agreed, even though Jones had no authority to make such a decision. The Soviets, meanwhile, substituted Ivan Edeshko for Alzhan Zharmukhamedov, which should have been illegal since there was never technically a dead ball.
Edeshko was to attempt a full-court pass to Soviet center Alexander Belov. But the Americans defended him well and he was only able to get the ball to Modestas Paulauskas in the backcourt. The Americans appeared to have denied the Soviets a chance at a buzzer-beater, but one second after Paulauskas caught the ball, the horn sounded again. Somehow, during all the confusion prior to the play, the clock had been set to 0:50 instead of 0:03.
So the Soviet team got a third chance. This time (perhaps with assistance from referee Artenik Arabadjian who gestured to American center Tom McMillen to give Edeshko more space on the in-bounds pass), Edeshko got the ball to Belov, who scored an easy layup as time expired.
The United States filed a formal protest, but to no avail.
After the completion of the 1972 Olympics, the United States Olympic Committee filed another appeal, which was also unsuccessful.
The members of the U.S. team voted amongst themselves not to accept their silver medals and were absent for the medal ceremony. Since then, the players have had many opportunities to end their protest and accept their medals. While center Tommy Burleson and wing Ed Ratleff told Sports Illustrated in 1992 that they would vote to end the protest, the other ten members of the team have not forgiven the injustice. The basketball silver medals from the 1972 games remain unclaimed.
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