Forty Septembers Ago

Forty Septembers ago, sport and politics intersected on an international stage, resulting in drama and tragedy unmatched before or since.

The 1972 Summer Olympics were supposed to mark Germany’s ultimate return to prominence one score and seven years after the end of World War II. At least that was the plan for republican and free West Germany – Deutschland was still divided, East Germany a Soviet satellite trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

The Games had last been held in Germany in 1936. Adolph Hitler sought to use those Olympics as a showcase to demonstrate the competence of his ruling national socialist party. Now often called the “Nazi Olympics,” the Berlin Games were successful in an overall sense … filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and games organizer Carl Diem creating one of the first true sporting spectacles; the great American sprinter Jesse Owens (the most famous of a bevy of African American athletes) shattering any notions of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals.

As the ’72 Games approached, the West Germans wanted no links to the aggressive, militaristic history many people around the globe associated with the Germany of WWI and WWII, and they certainly sought to avoid connection with 1936 Berlin. The Munich Olympics were to be the “Happy Games.” Security personnel carried no visible weapons, even dressed in soft pastel colors. This laxity proved tragic.

In the early morning hours of September 5th, during the second week of the Games, Palestinian terrorists dressed as athletes scaled a fence and entered the Olympic Village. The eight terrorists broke into apartments housing Israeli athletes and coaches. They immediately killed two of them, and took nine hostages. After nearly 18 hours of negotiations – played out on television – a bus ferried the terrorists and their hostages to the NATO air base at Furstenfeldbrook. There a poorly planned attempt to free the hostages by German authorities resulted in the murder of the remaining nine Israeli hostages, the deaths of a German policeman caught in the crossfire and five of the terrorists, and the capture of the remaining three terrorists (who would be released in a prisoner exchange by the West Germans within weeks).

After a one-day period of grieving, IOC President Avery Brundage announced “the Games must go on.”

And they did.

While nothing compared to the tragedy of the massacre, other controversial events took place as well. Brundage was roundly criticized for his decision to continue the games after only 24 hours. Controversial calls at the end of the gold medal basketball game allowed the Soviet Union to prevail over a U.S. team that had never lost in Olympic basketball competition; the Americans refused the silver medals (which sit even today in a vault at IOC headquarters in Lausanne). U.S. sprinters were given an old schedule by their coach and the 100 meter favorite (Eddie Hart) never even made it to his preliminary heats (having to settle for gold in the 4×100 relay). American swimmer Mark Spitz won 7 gold medals (a record that would stand until Michael Phelps won 8 in 2008) but left the Games immediately after completing his event (the Jewish Spitz uncomfortable staying in Munich). Altogether, the Olympic Movement would not truly recover from these events until the 1992 Barcelona Games (1976 Montreal Games faced boycotts and financial problems; 1980 Moscow Games saw an American-led boycott by western nations; 1984 LA Games saw a tit-for-tat boycott by the Soviets and eastern-bloc nations; the 1988 Seoul Games were marred by the Ben Johnson steroid scandal and controversial judging).

At the same time the 1972 Olympics captivated the world’s attention, two nations played out their own international drama on the ice.

Canada and the Soviet Union competed against each other in eight games, starting on September 2nd with four games played in four cities across Canada, and ending on September 28th after four games played in Moscow. The “Summit Series” never garnered as much attention as the 1972 Munich Olympics, but the hockey was riveting, with Cold War tensions spilling onto the rink nearly a decade before the United States would win the “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY.

Most hockey aficionados – fans, experts, and players alike – expected the mighty team of Canadians to dominate the Soviets. Canada is considered the historical home of ice hockey, the game originating there in the 1800s and the first official match taking place in 1875. Open professionals from the NHL, which comprised the roster of team Canada, could not compete in the Olympics at the time, so this series was the first true opportunity for the pros from Canada to take on the Soviets, a team comprised of Russians who had dominated international amateur hockey for a couple of decades (the Russians were “amateur” in name only; they played hockey for a living).

On September 2nd, the Soviets stunned the Canadians with a 7-3 victory in the first game, overcoming a quick goal by Phil Esposito with flashy speed and precision on offense, especially from forward Valeri Kharlamov who scored twice and would become the USSR star of the series (along with goaltender Vladislav Tretiak). Canada came back to win Game Two on September 4th in Toronto (the same night the Olympic Village in Munich fell into peaceful slumber – hours before the terrorist attack), and the teams played to a tie in Winnipeg on September 6th.

When the Soviets prevailed 5-3 on September 8th in Vancouver, and then 5-4 two weeks later in Moscow, the USSR held a 3-1-1 lead in the competition. Team Canada would need to win the three remaining games – all in Moscow – to salvage the series.

And they did.

In one of those remarkable turnarounds that happen only in sport, Canada eked out a 3-2 win in Game 5 with Paul Henderson (remember the name) scoring the clincher. In Game 6, the great Esposito willed Canada to another clutch victory by scoring two goals, with Henderson again punching in the game-winner in the 4-3 final. In the last game, Canada trailed 5-3 in the third period but surged to a 6-5 thrilling win when Esposito scored two more goals and Henderson – yes that man again – slammed in a rebound with seconds remaining to secure the Summit Series.

The 1972 Munich Olympics.

The 1972 Summit Series.

These overlapping competitions forty Septembers ago provided simultaneous examples of tragedy and drama, sport and politics, seen neither before or since.

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