From Munich to Birmingham: The Legacy of the Munich Olympics’ Attack

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Munich Olympics attack, its legacy is still felt at mega sporting events in expensive large-scale security operations.

Memorial plaque

Memorial outside Connollystraße 31, site of the Munich massacre - photo by Maurice Savage / Alamy Stock Photo

“They’re all gone.” On 6 September 1972, fifty years ago today, American broadcaster Jim McKay announced to his television audience that, despite earlier rumours to the contrary, none of the Israeli hostages taken the day before at the Munich Olympics had survived. A half-century later, the pain for the family members of the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches remains. Two Israelis were killed at the athletes’ village; the attackers slaughtered the remaining hostages during a botched rescue attempt by West German police at an airport outside of Munich.

The perpetrators were eight members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group affiliated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, who had evaded nearly non-existent security to invade the athletes’ village. There they targeted members of the Israeli team to raise the profile of the ongoing Palestinian struggle against the Israeli state. Their immediate demands involved the release of Palestinian prisoners, but the Israeli government refused to negotiate with hostage takers. Five of the eight hostage takers died in the shootout with the police; the three who were captured would later be controversially released by the government of West Germany in exchange for the passengers and crew of a hijacked Lufthansa flight.

Arguably the second most influential terrorist attack in modern history after 11 September 2001, the events of 5-6 September 1972 raised the profile of terrorism in an unprecedented fashion, at a time when the Cold War dominated global events."

Dr. Steve Hewitt - Senior Lecturer in American and Canadian Studies, University of Birmingham

There are numerous legacies of Munich, including personal ones for the families who lost loved ones. Arguably the second most influential terrorist attack in modern history after 11 September 2001, the events of 5-6 September 1972 raised the profile of terrorism in an unprecedented fashion, at a time when the Cold War dominated global events. Media coverage contributed directly to the profile of the attack. Through live satellite transmissions, the hostage-taking and its tragic conclusion unfolded in real time via television to a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions of people. The iconic status of the attack would be reflected in popular culture. The attack and the aftermath would be depicted in the 1999 Academy Award winning documentary, One Day in September, and in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film, Munich. In the latter’s powerful conclusion, the destroyed World Trade Center Twin Towers were digitally restored to the New York skyline.

Another ongoing legacy of the Munich attack relates to counter-terrorism. Several countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, created intelligence units to address international terrorism because of Munich. The Israeli government, under Prime Minister Golda Meir, responded through a systematic program of assassinations against those suspected of involvement in the planning and support for the Black September operation at the Olympics. This aggressive approach would lead to criticism and, in at least one case, the murder of someone unconnected to the Munich attack. Ironically, some of the countries critical of the Israeli approach would embrace the killing of suspected terrorists in the post-9/11 era, including through armed drones.

The impact of Munich was evident in Birmingham during the recent Commonwealth Games. To ensure the safety of athletes and spectators, the largest security operation in the history of the city occurred. Several thousand police and military personnel from around the United Kingdom were drafted in. The measures deployed included armed police patrolling the University of Birmingham campus and other parts of the city, machines to x-ray vehicles, expanded CCTV camera networks, roads closed for the duration of the Games, reconnaissance drones, snipers in the city centre, and Special Air Service members on standby in the event of an attack or hostage taking. The final cost of the security at the Commonwealth Games is not yet known, although it will undoubtedly be lower than the security for the 2012 London Olympics, which totalled over £1 billion.

Indeed, a question for policymakers in liberal-democratic states going forward is whether, in an era of diminished resources, such expensive large-scale security operations for mega sporting events will be feasible or desirable in the future.  No one wants another Munich Massacre; ensuring that outcome in an era of shrunken state resources might require not hosting such events in the first place.