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Sport and Politics: The Olympic Games, Part 4

By Pete Usher



1968. Two gloved fists, three careers wrecked.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Continuing the series of how politics and sport have, in fact, mixed at the modern Olympic Games. Parts 1 to 3 can be found Here, Here, and Here.


If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.

Tommie Smith.


1968: Mexico City.

112 nations; 5516 athletes; 18 sports; 172 events.

Failed Bids: Buenos Aires; Detroit; Lyon.


In 1968, Mexico City became the first Latin American and the first majority Spanish-speaking host of the Olympic Games. This was also the first Games to use the now familiar all-weather smooth track for track and field events, rather than the old cinder track. It was also the first to only use electronic timekeeping equipment, which was rather useful as the high altitude led to a number of world records being set in sprint races and jumping events. Bob Beamon’s famous long jump of 8.90m still stands as the Olympic Record, and it was the World Record for 23 years.



More than 50 years on, it is still an Olympic record.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


The 1968 Games were the first where the political ghosts of the Second World War were finally banished, as separate teams represented East and West Germany for the first time. The People’s Republic of China were still boycotting over the inclusion of the Republic of China (Taiwan), and the ban on South Africa stayed in place. There had been talk of readmitting South Africa in 1972 if certain steps were taken, but the threat of a mass boycott from other African nations, in addition to Eastern Bloc and African-American athletes stopped that in its tracks.


And, as usual, politics became involved in both the build-up to the Games and the Games themselves.


Gustavo Díaz Ordaz Bolaños was the President of Mexico from December 1964 to November 1970, representing the Partido Revolucionario Institucional or Industrial Revolutionary Party (PRI) – the party that would hold power in Mexico from 1929 to 2000. Diaz Ordaz’s government was particularly strict when dealing with strikes and protests from various working groups, including railroad workers, teachers, and doctors. Workers were fired for taking industrial action, and the use of force to break strikes was common.


Meanwhile, across the globe, social conflicts were escalating in a series of events that were grouped together as the Protests of 1968 (more complex and widespread than we have time to go into here), with events in the USA and Czechoslovakia having an impact on the Games. Before that, though, protests in Mexico would have a tragic pre-event impact.


Mexican students had been increasingly opposed to the Government spending on the 1968 Games. The protests had become more united over the course of the year, and had been countered by arrests and violence, including the army using a bazooka to blow open the doors of a school. On 2nd October, around 10,000 students from multiple universities converged on the Plaza des las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco district, to protest the government action and listen to speeches. A number of non-students were also in the area, watching the protest. What followed remains controversial to this day.


What is clear is that the plaza was surrounded by soldiers with tankettes and trucks, and overflown by helicopters. The Mexican Government line at the time was that shots were fired, and only after that did the military use force, opening fire and sending in the secret Olympia Battalion (whose members wore white gloves or handkerchiefs in their left hand to avoid being shot at by the soldiers) to arrest the student leaders. It wasn’t until 40 years later that documents showed that the Government had a large number of snipers in position around the square prior to the demonstration (as many as 300), and eye witness accounts maintain that it was these positions that opened fire, starting the massacre. The shooting went on for two hours as the panicked crowd tried to disperse, and was followed up by further arrests and violence.


Student violence, Mexico City, 1968. Or maybe violence done unto students.

Picture courtesy Global Sport.


It was not just students who were in the line of fire – local residents, including children, were hit by gunfire. Another who was shot was the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, whose eye-witness accounts were instrumental in showing that the official denial of the massacre was a lie. Fallaci was shot three times and left for dead, but survived and went on to interview many leading international figures including Henry Kissinger, Ayatollah Khomieni, and Deng Xiaoping.


No exact figure for the numbers of killed or injured has been established. The official account at the time was that there had been 4 deaths, which increased later to 20-28 dead, hundreds wounded, and hundreds more arrested. The true death toll is estimated to be more than 300. In 2001, an investigation concluded that elements of the Olympia Battalion had opened fire on the students to provoke the wider reaction. Despite attempts in 2001, no-one has ever been prosecuted for the massacre.


The wider protests of 1968 also had an impact during the Games. In August 1968, a Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia crushed the liberalisation from the Prague Spring, and removed Alexander Dubček from power, an event that also led to Albania withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact. This would twice have an impact in the women’s gymnastics, both times involving the Czech competitor Věra Čáslavská. Čáslavská was a star of Czechoslovak sport, having won 3 golds in Tokyo, as well as World Championship titles, and her vocal support for the reformist government had been clear.


In the balance beam event, Soviet athlete Natalia Kuchinskaya had taken gold, with Čáslavská taking silver. The judging here was highly controversial, to say the least, with one of the judges actually being a Soviet coach. Čáslavská’s initial score was increased from 9.65 to 9.80 after the crowd reaction to her initial score caused the head judge to intervene. At the medal ceremony, Čáslavská turned her head away and down as the Soviet anthem was played, a silent protest at the events of August.


Věra Čáslavská protested at the awards ceremony, which ended her career as well. 1968 was a big year for career-ending political protests.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Similarly, there was controversy about the floor event scoring, although this was not so clear-cut. Popular opinion is that the Russian Larisa Petrik had her preliminary floor score upgraded to bring about a tie for the gold medal. However, it is possible that this could have been the correction of a mistake made by the organisers. Regardless, Čáslavská again looked away during the playing of the Soviet anthem.


The protest was seen around the world, and Čáslavská’s popularity at home remained high – she was voted Czech Sportsperson of the Year for the fourth time. However, the Czech authorities did not see things the same way. Čáslavská was denied the right to travel abroad and to participate in sporting events, effectively forcing her into retirement. It was not until the late 1980s that she was allowed to coach in Czechoslovakia again, but things improved significantly after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, with Věra working with President Václav Havel, then becoming the head of the Czech Olympic Committee.


However, the most famous political event of the 1968 Games took place after the men’s 200m final. The evolution of Civil Rights in the USA was a significant topic, and while progress had been made, there was still a long journey ahead. Against this background, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) had been founded in 1967 by Harry Edwards, and included sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The aim of the OPHR was to advocate for civil and human rights for black people not only in the United States, but also in other countries such as South Africa, as well as combating racism in sport. Initially, the OPHR had proposed a boycott of the Games, but this was finally rejected in June 1968.


Smith won the gold and Carlos the bronze medal in the 200m, with Australian Peter Norman separating them. When it came to the medal presentation, one of the most power and long-lasting Olympics images was captured. All three men wore OPHR badges. The two Americans were shoeless, but wore black socks, to represent black poverty. Smith had a black scarf to represent Black Pride; Carlos had a necklace of beads. He said: “The beads were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage,” and he wore his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with manual workers.


But the most powerful symbol was still to come. As the American anthem was played, the two men bowed their heads and raised a gloved fist in the air, giving the Black Power salute, although Carlos used his left hand as he had forgotten his glove and had to use Smith’s spare (left) glove – supposedly at the suggestion of Norman.


The response from the IOC was swift. Avery Bundage, the American president of the IOC, deemed the protest to be a domestic political statement, unfit for the Games, which were apolitical. Bundage’s position on the 1936 Berlin Games had previously been the subject of controversy, with his acceptance of Nazi claims of non-discrimination, as well as announcing at the time that the Nazi salute was acceptable. Bundage demanded that the two men be suspended and banned from the Olympic Village. When the US team refused to comply, they were threatened with expulsion of the whole team. As a result, Smith and Carlos were sent home, but they did retain their medals.


Avery Bundage, IOC President, who objected to the salutes of Smith and Carlos, but was happy with the Nazi salutes at the 1936 Olympics. We'll hear his views on 1972 later.

Picture courtesy The Nation.


The two were subjected to criticism and threats on their return home. Time called the protest a “display of petulance” and “effective but petty”, as well as “angrier, nastier, ugly”.


They were shunned by the US sporting establishment. By the time of the 1972 Games, Smith was coaching children in Wakefield rather than preparing for a defence of his title. Both struggled for years, before becoming recognised as trailblazers.


Peter Norman was also shunned, coming under criticism from conservative Australian commentators. Despite achieving the qualifying time, he was not selected for the 1972 Games, although the Australian Olympic Committee deny there was an ulterior motive for this.


The photograph of the salute remains one of the most iconic in (the non-political) Olympic history.


1972: Munich.

121 nations; 7134 athletes; 21 sports; 195 events.

Failed bids: Detroit, Madrid, Montréal.


The Olympics returned to Germany for the first time since 1936, and continued to expand, with eleven new nations taking part. As well as the ongoing absence of China and South Africa, Rhodesia was expelled prior to the Games in response to African protests about the Rhodesian Government’s policies. It had only been allowed to compete if it did so under the guise of Southern Rhodesia, using “God Save The Queen” as its anthem, despite the 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence.


All the sporting triumph and glory that happened in Munich was and still is overshadowed by the events of 5th/6th September 1972.


Although the Olympic Village was fenced off, security was light because the Organising Committee were wary of the military legacy of the 1936 Nazi-run Games. This led to allegations that athletes were sneaking in and out of the compound and visiting other countries’ rooms.


At around 4.30am on the 5th of September, eight members of the Black September faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) scaled the fence, led by Luttif Afif, using the code name “Issa”.


They were unwittingly assisted by some athletes sneaking back in – originally thought to be American, but now believed to be Canadian water polo players (who thought they were helping fellow athletes evade security). Wearing track suits and carrying their weapons in duffel bags, it would be easy to understand why they thought this.


Using stolen keys, the terrorists let themselves into the block housing the Israeli team. They let themselves in Apartment 1, where wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg heard a noise, and tried to prevent them from getting in. His resistance allowed Tuvia Sokolvsky to escape through a window. Weinberg was shot and wounded for his trouble, and forced to lead the Palestinians to find more hostages. He led them past Apartment 2, where the fencers and racewalkers were, by saying that there were non-Israeli athletes in that room, and on to Apartment 3, which was occupied by wrestlers and weightlifters. In all, 12 hostages were taken, but wrestler Gad Zabari escaped with Weinberg’s help, and weightlifter Yossef Romano resisted. Romano and Weinberg were shot and killed, leaving nine hostages. The group holed up in Apartment 1.


Just after 5am, the hostage-takers sent the police their demands – the release of 234 prisoners in Israeli jails, plus the German terrorists Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhoff, from the Red Army Faction. The deadline given was 9am, otherwise they would start shooting hostages, and Weinberg’s body was tossed out to show their intent.


The Israeli response was firm – there would be no negotiation. There may or may not have been an offer to send an Israeli special forces unit – Bavarian interior minister Bruno Merk, who was directly involved with the conversations with the terrorists, denies such an offer was made. Nonetheless, the Germans were able to get the Black September group to extend their deadline, even though the offer of money and prisoner swaps were rejected. Meanwhile, the Games were continuing – it was twelve hours after the initial attack before events were suspended.


At 4:30pm, a squad of West German police was dispatched, with a plan to crawl down the ventilation shafts to gain entry and kill the terrorists. Amazingly, the deployment of the police was filmed and broadcast live, which meant the hostage takers could see the police moving into position. After “Issa” threatened to kill two of the hostages, the police retreated.


The negotiators also demanded to speak to the hostages, to satisfy themselves that they were still alive. A brief conversation took place with two hostages stood at the second floor window, and then Minister of the Interior Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Mayor of the Olympic Village Walter Tröger were allowed in to see the hostages. Unfortunately, Genscher and Tröger estimated there were four or five attackers, rather than the eight that were actually there. This would impact on the upcoming events.


The German plan was to offer the terrorists and hostages transportation to Cairo, initially via helicopter to Fürstenfeldbruck air base, and then via plane to their final destination. In reality, the flight crew of the plane would be police, who would overpower the leaders as they came on board to inspect the plane, allowing snipers to then eliminate the rest of the terrorists. The Germans also realised that to get to the helicopters, the terrorists and hostages would have to walk 200m through underground garages, and they placed sharpshooters along the route.


The hostage situation ended in a bungled raid by West German police.

Picture courtesy BBC.


However, “Issa” wanted to check the route, and did so while guns were being pointed at police chief Manfred Schreiber, Genscher and Tröger. The sharpshooters were hidden and when they moved to avoid being seen, they were heard, and the Palestinians were alerted. “Issa” then demanded a bus to take them to the helicopters, averting the opportunity.


The preparations at Fürstenfeldbruck were less than ideal. Five snipers were deployed, but none of them had special training, nor any weapon bar the standard German H&K G3, with no night vision or special optics. They did not have radio contact with each other (to coordinate fire), nor with the authorities overseeing the operation. In their own words: “I am of the opinion that I am not a sharpshooter.”


The forces used to be Police, as the German Army were not allowed to be involved. Just before the helicopters arrived, the German police on the plane decided their mission was too dangerous and voted to abandon their mission, leaving the plane. When the helicopters landed, at 10:30pm on the 5th, “Issa” and his deputy went to check the aircraft while the other gunmen held the helicopter pilots. They found it uncrewed and unfuelled, at which point they realised that it was a trap.


Disaster then unfolded. Realising it was a trap, the two men ran back to the helicopters. One of the snipers fired, but hit and wounded the deputy rather than “Issa”. The order was then given for the other snipers to fire. The two kidnappers holding the pilots at gunpoint were shot and killed, and the pilots fled. The hostages could not, and the terrorists took cover around the helicopter, returning fire and shooting out a number of the airport lights, making targeting more difficult. A German policeman in the control tower, Anton Fliegerbauer, was shot and killed. As gunfire was exchanged, the hostages tried to undo their bonds, with no success.


The Germans had not arranged for any vehicular support, so called for armoured personnel carriers, which got stuck in traffic, and did not arrive until nearly midnight. This triggered the final response from the terrorists.


At 12.04am on the 6th, the terrorists turned their guns on the hostages and threw a grenade into the cockpit of one of the helicopters. All nine remaining hostages were killed. In the firefight, four of the terrorists were killed outright, including “Issa”, three were captured, and one escaped – Yusuf Nazzal. However, Nazzal was tracked down a mere 40 minutes later, and shot dead after a brief firefight.


Murdered by the Black September faction of the PLO.

Picture courtesy Jerusalem Post.


The Games were suspended for 34 hours.


The remaining Israeli athletes left the Games, as did a number of other athletes. All remaining Jewish athletes were placed under guard, while Mark Spitz, who had won seven gold medals, had already left during the crisis. A memorial service was held in the Olympic Stadium before the Games restarted. IOC President Avery Bundage made a speech where he equated the attack’s impact on the Olympic movement with encroaching professionalism and the exclusion of Rhodesia.


The three surviving terrorists were in pre-trial custody. On 29th October, Lufthansa Flight 615 on the Damascus-Beirut-Ankara-Munich-Frankfurt route was hijacked shortly after leaving Beirut. The hijackers demanded the release of the three Munich prisoners, holding 18 passengers and crew hostage. Eventually, the prisoners were flown to Zagreb, where they joined the hijacked plane, and then flew on to Tripoli, where they were greeted as heroes and allowed to go into hiding. The Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, rejected all German attempts to put them on trial.


In response, Israel set in motion a covert operation known as Operation Bayonet, or Operation Wrath of God. This operation killed an unknown number of Black September and PLO members, as well as the Lillehammer affair in 1973.


For a more detailed documentary view, the film One Day In September was made in 1999. The Steven Spielberg film Munich covers the Israeli response, although it has been criticised on grounds of authenticity.


And we haven’t even talked about the men’s basketball final.


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