Olympics, from Munich to Turin

Andy Newman


Munich 1972

It was my first day at secondary school, and my first school day where I didn’t have to wear short trousers. I remember that amid the anxiety about that big event, I was also extremely disappointed that returning to school had stopped me watching the Olympics.


Over the summer I had been excitedly following the build up, and for the last ten days of my holidays I had been glued to the television, particularly engrossed by the Herculean achievements of Mark Spitz, who went on to win an incredible total of 7 gold medals. This was also the Olympics when 17 year old Olga Korbut amazed the world with her grace and skill, and the Cuban Teófilo Stevenson won his first gold medal as a heavyweight. I remember being impressed by the huge medal tally of the USSR and East Germany, and felt so proud of what I saw at the time as victories for socialism.


My mother picked me up after school in her rusty old Morris 1100, and the first thing I said was” What has happened today at the Olympics.” She burst into tears and said to me: “I don’t know how to tell a boy your age, there has been a kidnapping and some terrible murders”. It was a personal turning point for me, where the whole world suddenly seemed less innocent. I have never watched Olympic sport since.


Turin 2006

So it comes as no surprise that the Turin Winter Olympics have started with 15000 police on the streets, NATO warplanes circling over the opening ceremony, and a security bill of $100 million (£57 m). Even before it started Turin was embroiled with controversy about the environmental impact of the railway link to the Susa valley, where tunnelling has released asbestos and uranium into the atmosphere. Hundreds of protesters disrupted the progress of the Olympic torch.


Stephen Speilberg’s film “Munich” is still playing in cinemas around the world, reminding us of the terrible violence at the 1972 Olympics, where 11 Israeli athletes, 5 Palestinian guerrillas and a German policeman were killed. Naturally, most reviewers of the movie have referred to the more important political context of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but the damage caused to the political image of the Olympics is also very significant.


A truce between nations

The Olympic ideal of international sport transcending politics has been enthusiastically promoted by the left in the past. The Munich Olympics in 1972 was praised by René Piquet, member of the Political Bureau of the French Communist Party as “fertile ground for international exchanges where the young people of the world can meet each other: a living example of the possibility of peaceful coexistence between countries with different social systems. The games can make a contribution towards peace, the fight against racial discrimination and better understanding among men”


How obscene to talk about peaceful coexistence among nations in Sport, while at the same time Vietnam and Northern Ireland were in flames.


The Munich Olympics took place right in the middle of the American air offensive “Operation Linkbacker I”. Although the last American combat troops had left Vietnam just days before the Olympics started, 16000 “military advisers” remained to stiffen the resolve of the South Vietnamese army, and the Americans were involved is a last ditch effort to win the war from the air. During “Linkbacker I” U.S. warplanes flew 40,000 sorties and dropped over 125,000 tons of bombs. 1972 saw the heaviest fighting of the whole war with 40000 South Vietnamese soldiers and 100000 North Vietnamese soldiers killed. President Nixon said: “The bastards have never been bombed like they're going to bombed this time"


While the Olympics were in progress, British Defence Minister, R Curtis, sent a letter to Prime Minister Edward Heath confirming that the British Government supported members of the loyalist death squad, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) being members of the police or armed forces, despite the UDA having committed 71 sectarian murders that year. In the opinion of this minister of the Crown, " an important function of the UDA is to channel into a constructive and disciplined direction Protestant energies which might otherwise become disruptive. …  an application to join the UDR [a British Army regiment] would not be automatically rejected because of UDA membership, ..."



January 1972 had seen the deliberate butchery of 13 civilians by British paratroopers on the streets of Derry, and in July 12000 soldiers supported by tanks and bulldozers smashed through the barricades erected by Catholic residents to protect themselves from loyalist violence. Two people, a Catholic teenager and an IRA volunteer, were shot dead by the British Army during the operation in Derry. While the Olympics were in progress, the army were involved in systematic house searches, and Catholics were being interned without trial.


On Saturday 2nd September 1972, 60 anti-war protesters were wounded by the police in Munich, as the German authorities clamped down on those seeking to truly achieve peace and friendship between nations. These German games were important for the West German Bundesrepublik to exorcise the memory of Berlin 1936 – they didn’t want anyone to spoil the party. Even before the Black September attack, the army were everywhere, with 25000 troops of the Bundeswehr stationed in Munich as part of a publicity campaign to project the German armed forces as peaceful and democratic.


To compete is to belong

The real nature of the Olympics is best seen by looking at the medal tables, and where the venues are. The rich, imperial countries take the lion’s share of the medals, and to host the Olympics requires a vast mobilisation of capital. Most smaller and developing nations cannot hope to truly compete. However there is tremendous prestige to even taking part, it proves you are entitled to your seat at the banquet.

In the lead up to Munich, the main controversy was over the participation of the racist settler state of Rhodesia. The break away apartheid state was not internationally recognised, and was therefore seeking to compete by pretending to still be a British colony. They arrived in Germany with the old colonial flag, made up of a Union Jack and a coat of arms on a blue background, and dutifully stood to attention for “God Save the Queen”. But Rhodesian team manager, Ossie Plaskitt, knew that the real purpose was to gain legitimacy for the racist state: "We are ready to participate under any flag, be it the flag of the boy scouts or the Moscow flag. But everyone knows very well that we are Rhodesians and will always remain Rhodesians."

Just days before the formal opening ceremony, the IOC voted to exclude Rhodesia under pressure from African countries, and from black American athletes. Race was still a simmering issue in the American team whose manager, Avery Brundage, was a known racist who had campaigned against the boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In protest at racism Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, who won gold and silver in the 400 metres, echoed the black power protest staged by Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968. Matthews and Collett refused to stand at attention while the American anthem played during the medal ceremony.

It was in this context that the Israeli team of 11 athletes, 9 of whom were full time members of the armed forces, were competing: to gain prestige for their own apartheid state. The Palestinians of course had no state, and were not entitled to compete.

As French Marxist, Jean Marie-Brohm, wrote in the immediate aftermath of Munich: “The commando’s action was intended as a demonstration in the heart of the Olympic village, that ‘peaceful co-existence’, the truce, the Olympic peace and the rest were mere ideological masks for the holy alliance of the great powers against the small, for the coalition of the oppressors against the oppressed … the Olympic peace was compatible with the slaughter of thousands of victims in Indochina or with massacres in Latin America or Africa, but Black September’s transgression of the mythical symbolism of the institution was too much [emphasis in original]”


The aftermath

Avery Bundage had said “The Olympic Movement is a 20th century religion. Where there is no injustice of caste, of race, of family, of wealth”. The rhetoric was already hollow following the attempt to keep Rhodesia in the competition, but Black September tore the veil away. Demonstrators marched though the Munich streets behind the banner “Are these people human”, and “no Arabs” signs began appearing in cafes. The day after the events, North African workers at Volkswagen’s Munich factory were segregated away from the German workers.

Four days afterwards Israel jets bombed refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon, targeting civilians in reprisal for the deaths of their Spartan soldier-athletes in Munich.

It is hard to remember today, but in 1972 voices in the West who supported the Palestinians were few and far between. The truth about the Israeli occupation and the discrimination against Palestinians was no where nearly so widely known as today. The Black September guerrillas brought about a storm of fury, but in the aftermath things were never the same again. They stripped away the ignorance that could pretend  sport transcended politics, and at the same time brought the war in Palestine to the political centre stage.



Normalising international relations though sport supports the agenda of the existing order, for most people in the world this is an abstract concept, but in cases of national oppression the sporting contests take on a more direct significance.

This explains the furore after a joint Palestinian and Israeli team played against Barcelona in December 2005. Obviously this was a tremendous opportunity for the individual Palestinian players from Gaza and the West Bank, and some of the Israeli players were also Arabs, like Abbas Suan. They were able to play in front of 31820 people in the Nou Camp stadium, and compete against athletes of the stature of Ronaldinho, who had picked up the Ballon D'or award as the world’s best player only the previous evening in Paris. What a dream come true, and they had every reason to be pleased with losing just 2:1.

But they were being cynically used to promote the concept of normalisation between the Arab world and Israel. As Jamal Muhesin, director-general of the Palestinian Ministry of Youth and Sport, explained. "Palestinian athletes, like all Palestinians, are constantly harassed and prevented from travelling outside their places of residence in the West Bank … The world should come and see the ugly reality here, not be duped by the artificial rosy picture in Barcelona." Officials from the Palestinian Olympic Committee distanced themselves from the event. "We are decidedly against this activity. Israel is killing our children, tormenting us on a daily basis and reducing our towns and villages to isolated ghettos. We must never take part in propagandistic activities aimed at blurring reality here," Abd al-Nasser al-Sharif, an athletic official in southern West Bank, said athletic normalisation between Israel and the Palestinians would encourage normalisation between Israel and the Arab world. "The Arabs would argue that 'we can't be more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves' and eventually Israel will remain occupying our land and holy places while everybody is [dealing] with her as if everything is normal. We are shooting ourselves in the foot."

In fact, sport in Palestine is a target for Israel’s war machine, alongside all other aspects of Palestinian civil society. For example, on 6th August  2004: Israeli occupation forces killed 14 people in an air strike on a football pitch in eastern Gaza. Minister Gamal Muhesin, has said 96 Palestinian athletes were killed during the Intifada and many more were injured or taken hostage by Israeli forces.


The Olympic vision today

The idealism of the Olympics was always hypocritical, but now there is hardly even pretence.

The television rights for coverage of the Sydney games alone were worth $815 million. In the interests of television coverage, the New South Wales government [An Australian province] even accommodated the IOC by bringing in daylight saving time a few months early. The Olympic Security Command Centre issued NSW Police with a handbook which detailed acceptable behaviour inside the Olympic stadium. The list of “restricted items” included “signs and items with corporate branding”. This was not to make the Olympics a corporate-free zone, but to ensure that the corporate sponsors were not “injured” by any competing logos. Those inside the stadium were bombarded with images from Holden, Coca-Cola, IBM, Westpac and the other Olympic sponsors. Any clothing or signs which prominently display competing logos were removed. A team of 50 student lawyers, jokingly referred to as the “T-shirt police”, were specifically hired for this purpose.

The official web-site of the 2008 Beijing Olympics boasts this proud vision: “For international entities looking to expand into the thriving Chinese market place, a partnership with the 2008 Olympic Games will deliver a powerful business opportunity for growth, and product/service showcasing while serving to strengthen and build ties of friendship throughout China. For Chinese firms, the Olympic Games provide an honourable opportunity to enhance their image and demonstrate their strengths in key technologies, products and services while gaining recognition for their commitment to China's national quest for professional excellence in all realms of business.”

Well, you have to have a dream.



Picture credits







Feb 2006

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