With just over two weeks to go before the start of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, final preparations are being made for this huge sports festival.
More than 10,000 athletes and 340,000 foreign tourists are expected to visit Australia for the Games, and organizers naturally want the event to be a huge success.
Just outside the main Olympic stadium, a simple stainless steel panel bearing 11 names has been suspended from a tower in the Olympic plaza. Above it a double-sided blue glass panel displays inscriptions in Hebrew – a reminder of what the organizers desperately hope to avoid.
This poignant memorial commemorates the greatest disaster in the history of the modern Olympics: the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and officials at the 1972 Munich Summer Games. The monument symbolizes the need for security in Sydney and is a constant reminder that the families of the dead Israelis are still campaigning for justice.
The Munich tragedy began in the early hours of September 5, 1972, when Palestinian terrorists burst into the building housing the Israeli delegation to “The Games of Peace and Joy.”
The attackers killed two Israelis, took hostages and demanded the release of prisoners in Israeli jails. When Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir refused their demands, a day of tense negotiations and torturous deadlines began. As the minutes ticked by toward each deadline it was, says Ankie, wife of hostage Andre Spitzer, an Israeli fencing master, “like dying a little bit.”
After a day-long siege – watched live on ABC-TV and by 900 million people around the world – the Germans eventually decided to shift the problem out of the Olympic Village and try to rescue the Israelis using force. The terrorists were told they would be flown to a “safe haven,” and were taken by helicopter with their hostages to an airfield outside Munich.
Zvi Zamir, the head of the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, arrived in Munich to see the hostages shuffle to the choppers. “Jews once again walking tied on German land,” he recalls. “It was a thing which I’ll never forget in my life.”
As the choppers took off toward the air field, the terrorists began to suspect something was wrong: It had all been too easy.
“We began to get the feeling that a trap was waiting,” said Jamal Al-Gashey, the sole surviving member of the terrorist unit. “We began to prepare ourselves.”
Moments after the terrorists landed at the air field, the Germans launched a bungled rescue operation.
Police snipers missed their targets and the terrorists hid under the helicopters and raked the airfield with bullets. The sporadic gun battle lasted for more than an hour, until the arrival of German armored cars at the airfield.
The terrorists apparently thought they were about to be machine-gunned, and they massacred the nine Israeli hostages still inside the two helicopters.
There were more than 450 policemen at the airfield. Three terrorists and the four German helicopter pilots all survived. But not a single Israeli survived. The German “rescue” operation was a grand failure.
Soon after the incident, the relatives of the Israeli athletes sued the German authorities and demanded they release all their files on the Munich massacre.
For decades, the Germans stonewalled, perhaps fearing their officials would be accused of anti-Semitism, and claimed there was just one short report on the attack.
But then a few years ago Ankie Spitzer received an anonymous package that included details of a hidden hoard of documents, reports and files relating to the Munich massacre. It proved there had been a huge cover-up.
“Suddenly everything was there,” said Ankie. “There were 3,808 files of information, things that we were denied for 20 years.”
The Germans had no choice but to open their files, and the relatives soon realized why they had been hidden. They make the Germans look like “fools,” according to Ankie.
Recent investigations have discovered that a crucial group of German police officers, who were supposed to ambush the terrorist leaders at the air field, actually voted to abandon their position just before the hostages and terrorists landed in two helicopters.
This left five snipers to deal with eight heavily armed terrorists. The snipers had no walkie-talkies, no flak jackets or helmets, inadequate rifles and no proper rifle sights or infra-red equipment. Police marksmanship was also poor. “I am of the opinion that I am not a sharp shooter,” admitted “Sniper Two” later.
Apart from revealing new details of the inept rescue operation, the secret German files show that security officials had warned of a possible terrorist strike at the 1972 Olympics.
Interpol issued an alert just weeks before the Games warning that Palestinian militants were grouping in Europe, and German intelligence sent a letter to the Munich police warning of Palestinian plans to do “something” at the Games.
Yet nothing was done to protect the most vulnerable guests.
Relatives of the athletes still campaign to remind the world what happened in 1972. They have been to every Olympics since Munich. “It must never happen again,” said Ankie Spitzer, “not anywhere, but especially not at the Olympic Games.”
Ankie’s daughter Anouk, who has grown up without a father, believes it is important that people still talk about the massacre.
“We always say that they didn’t only murder 11 athletes and 11 Israelis but they murdered the Olympic dream,” she said. “And a dream that, as much as I know, my father really believed in.”
Anouk is desperate that her father’s spirit should not be forgotten: “I think the world has to remember. He deserves, and his friends deserve, to be remembered.” (Simon Reeve is the author of “One Day in September: The Story of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre.” In March, the film of the same name won an Academy Award for best documentary.)