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Munich massacre

Eleven Israeli Olympians die in 1972 hostage drama


(CNN) -- The 1972 Games in Munich were intended as a moment of redemption for a rehabilitated West Germany.

A new generation committed to peace and democracy had grown up since the end of World War Two.

The futuristic Olympic Park provided a potent symbol of the country's economic resurgence and the first Games on German soil since 1936 provided an opportunity, finally, to lay to exorcize the specter of Berlin's macabre carnival of Nazi triumphalism.

In the circumstances, then, it was perhaps not altogether unsurprising that vital security issues were compromised by the hosts' desperate-to-please commitment to the spirit of international friendship.

There would be no barbed wire, heavy-handedness or ostentatious displays of weaponry in a country still haunted by such images. These were to be the "Carefree Games" -- an Olympian Oktoberfest -- and for two weeks everything went to plan.

Mark Spitz and Olga Korbut grabbed the headlines while the atmosphere around the Olympic village was so relaxed that off-duty athletes, returning from late nights in Bavarian beer halls, could often be found climbing into the complex over the low chain-link fence.

But 1972 was also a high-water mark in the history of terrorism. Hijackings of passenger jets had become the preferred tactic of Palestinian liberation groups in their struggle with Israel. Germany was even waging its own campaign against the notorious Baader-Meinhof Group.

In the early hours of September 5, there would have seemed nothing immediately untoward about the sight of nine men, wearing tracksuits and carrying sports bags emblazoned with the Olympic rings, demonstrating their athletic prowess by scaling the walls around the athletes' compound.

Shot dead

Within minutes, however, two Israeli Olympians -- weightlifter Yossuf Romano and wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg -- were dead, shot while trying to resist the heavily-armed members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group.

Nine others -- weightlifters David Berger and Gad Tsabari; wrestlers Eliezer Halfin and Mark Slavin; and coaching staff Yossef Gutfreund, Andre Spitzer, Amitzur Shapira, Kehat Shorr and Jacov Springer -- were taken hostage.

As police gathered around the building, the terrorists issued their demand for the release of 234 prisoners held by Israel, and threatened to throw a body into the street each hour until their demands were met.

At quarter past eight that morning an equestrian event, the grand prix in dressage, started as scheduled.

For the next 16 hours there was a standoff. In frantic negotiations, German authorities managed to persuade the terrorists to push back their deadline, eventually agreeing to their demand for safe passage, with their hostages, to Cairo.

Bungled rescue

At nine o'clock that evening, the terrorists and their hostages were flown by helicopter to a military airport. The bungled rescue attempt that followed would leave all nine hostages, five of the terrorists and one policeman dead.

When German marksmen killed three terrorists as they stepped onto the tarmac, a fierce gun battle ensued; the remaining terrorists started executing the hostages and finally detonated a grenade inside the helicopter.

Seemingly paralysed by the events that had drenched the Games in blood, Olympic organizers struggled to frame an appropriate response to the massacre.

For 24 hours proceedings were suspended, while 80,000 attended a memorial service at the Olympic stadium. But Avery Brundage, the aging head of the International Olympic Committee, declared: "The Games must go on."

It was a decision considered heartless and inappropriate by many -- but athletes stayed on, and the crowds came nonetheless.

More than three decades later, as Athens prepares to host the first Summer Games in a new age of international terrorism, Munich offers a somber reminder of the vulnerability of the Olympic spirit.

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