The Munich 1972 Olympics, for all its sporting magnificence, will always be remembered for the blackest day in Olympic history: the deaths of 17 people, including 11 Israeli athletes and officials, after a kidnapping and hostage crisis in the Olympic Village. Palestinian guerrillas had stormed the Israeli team headquarters on September 5. They killed two Israelis and took another nine hostage. Later, as they tried to make good their escape at the airport, a botched rescue attempt resulted in the deaths of five terrorists, a policeman and the nine Israelis. The Games were suspended for 34 hours, but IOC President Avery Brundage, determined not to let terrorism destroy the peaceful spirit of the Olympics, declared “The Games must go on.” While competition recommenced, the Games had been forever dealt an evil blow.
The undisputed king of Munich was American swimmer Mark Spitz (swimming took place in the first week of the Games, before the hostage crisis). He won a record seven gold medals, four individual and three relay events, and all in world record time. Having won two gold medals in 1968, Spitz’s tally of nine gold medals equalled the record jointly shared by Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi and Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina. If Spitz was the king, the queen of competition was Australia’s Shane Gould. The 15-year-old won three gold, one silver and one bronze medal, all in individual events.
Another woman emerging as a global star was Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut, who became known as the Munchkin of Munich. The 17-year-old won three gold medals. More significantly, her personal charm, flair and grace turned artistic gymnastics into a global television spectacle, as live broadcasts reached more people and more nations than ever before.
In basketball, the US men’s team suffered one of the most surprising – and controversial – losses in Olympic history. Entering the gold medal final against the Soviet Union, the US had won eight consecutive gold medals and 62 straight matches. But after a last-second refereeing and timekeeping bungle, the Soviets scored a miracle basket to win 51-50. Another great dynasty ended with East German Wolfgang Nordwig’s win in men’s pole vault – the US had won all 16 gold medals since 1896. The Olympic program continued to diversify, with archery and handball returning to the Games.
The Soviet Union was the most successful nation at the Games with 50 gold medals, winning more than a quarter of the events on the program.
Australia at these Games
Munich was a successful Olympics for Australia, with the nation finishing sixth on the medal table with eight gold, seven silver and two bronze medals. It was a team buoyed by the brilliance of Shane Gould. Entering the Games, Gould, just 15, held every freestyle world record from 100m to 1500m. She won five medals in Munich: gold in the 200m freestyle, 400m freestyle and 200 individual medley, silver in the 800m freestyle and bronze in the 100m freestyle. She would retire the next year, but what she achieved in Munich remains one of the great individual displays in Games history.
Three other gold medals came in the pool. Gael Neall won the women’s 400m individual medley, Beverley Whitfield the women’s 200m breaststroke, and Brad Cooper the men’s 400m freestyle.
The golden surprise – and double delight - was the sport of yachting, now called sailing. Sailors scored an unprecedented two gold medals for Australia. The trio of Tom Anderson, John Cuneo and John Shaw won the Dragon class, and John Anderson and David Forbes won the Star class. John and Tom Anderson were twins, the first pair to win gold medals, securing victories in their events on the same afternoon.
A performer worthy of record was sprinter Raelene Boyle, silver medallist in both the 100m and 200m on the track. Boyle, also a 200m silver medallist in 1968, only lost to Eastern European athletes, whose national programs were later discredited for being rife with doping.
All of Australia’s 17 medals were won in just four sports: aquatics (swimming), athletics, cycling and sailing (yachting).