Irish athletes recall 1972 Munich massacre: ‘Some of us heard shots. We assumed it was the Americans celebrating’

The security in the athletes’ village appeared to be lighter compared with previous Games

They were billed as the Games to celebrate peace and love and understanding and, for the first 10 days after doves were released at the opening ceremony, they essentially did all that.

Everything about the Munich Olympics, which began on August 26th, 1972, appeared to be going to plan until one black day in September that changed everything so much that 50 years later it’s still hard to comprehend.

Munich also drew the largest Olympic entry and audience until that point: 7,173 athletes, from 121 nations, across 195 events. The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) paid big bucks to cover everything live as it happened.

There was a strong Irish presence: 60 qualified athletes across 12 different sports. The travelling team was headed by Olympic Council of Ireland president Michael Morris, who at the International Olympic Committee session just prior to the Games was elected to succeed Avery Brundage as head of the IOC.


The modern Olympic movement had rarely seemed so powerful. The local organising committee in Munich was keen to discard any military image of Germany and avoid any of the political propaganda that accompanied Hitler’s Olympics in Berlin in 1936.

American swimmer Mark Spitz had already grabbed the early headlines in his quest to win an unprecedented seven gold medals, while 17-year-old gymnast Olga Korbut from the Soviet Union toyed with dramatic success and some failure too.

At 4.30am local time on the morning of September 5th, as most of the athletes slept, eight tracksuit-clad members of the Black September faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), carrying duffle bags loaded with AKM assault rifles, Tokarev pistols and grenades, scaled a two-metre fence with the assistance of other unsuspecting athletes who were also sneaking their way back into the Olympic Village after a night out in the city.

Once inside, the terrorist group used stolen keys to enter two apartments being used by the Israeli team. Two Israelis were shot dead while trying to keep the intruders out — wresting coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano — and the masked gunman took nine Israeli hostages.

They were Yossef Gutfreund, a wrestling referee; sharpshooting coach Kehat Shorr; athletics coach Amitzur Shapira; fencing master Andre Spitzer; weightlifting judge Yakov Springer; wrestlers Eliezer Halfin and Mark Slavin; and weightlifters David Berger and Ze’ev Friedman. Within 24 hours they would be all be dead, too.

As dawn broke over the Village, the terrorists demanded the release of 234 Palestinians and non-Arabs jailed in Israel and safe passage for themselves out of Germany. Israel’s response was immediate and absolute: there would be no negotiation. So the Games continued, until mounting pressure on the IOC forced a suspension some 12 hours after the first athlete had been killed.

Security lapse

Part of that 60-strong Irish team was fencer John Bouchier-Hayes, competing in his third Olympics after Tokyo 1964 and Mexico City in 1968, in both foil and épée. One of his first and lasting memories of Munich was the lapse in security compared with his two previous Olympic experiences.

“What I remember first of all is that some of us actually heard the noise of shots early that morning, and we assumed, incorrectly, that it was the Americans celebrating Mark Spitz winning another gold medal in the pool, with a firecracker or something like that.

“Because countries were housed mostly alphabetically, we were only a block away from the Israelis, so we certainly heard something. It was only when we woke up a few hours later we found out what was actually going on.

“When I think back to Tokyo, the Olympic Village was a former US army camp, the men’s quarters separated from the women’s quarters by a 14ft-high fence and armed patrol guards. In Mexico four years later, the fence was down to about 10ft, and there was a bit more social life there.

“When we got to Munich, women were allowed into the men’s quarters, and for the first time there were things like discotheques. The village was hopping, full of life, everyone going around and smiling at one another. And there was no sign of security inside the village.

I wouldn’t have thought that the athletes wanted to cancel the Games. By and large they wanted them to go on, after four years to get there, and not just being selfish. What good would it have really done to cancel? That was certainly my view

—  Irish fencer John Bouchier-Hayes

“Then the kidnappings happened, and it was as if a wet blanket was thrown over the entire village. Everyone went around with heads down, buried in their shoulders. Nobody spoke to anyone else.

“Initially they postponed the Games for 12 hours, then 36 hours, and I remember some of the stadiums were still buzzing after that, people cheering on. But the athletes’ village was dead.

“We were also watching it all unfold live on television. I can’t actually remember if my competition was over or not — I did fence an Israeli in the earlier round, and it did have a huge impact on the whole thing.

“But I wouldn’t have thought that the athletes wanted to cancel the Games. By and large they wanted them to go on, after four years to get there, and not just being selfish. What good would it have really done to cancel? That was certainly my view.

“I think it impacted on us in different ways, and for the Irish, it was get to the stadium, compete, then come back and hide yourself. In my memory people just stopped talking to each other. There was a huge pall cast over the entire event.

“It was absolutely horrific, no two ways about it. We’d heard about Black September before going to Munich, but it never occurred to any of us that something like this might happen. Some of those later films, like Munich 72, I felt put a very different slant on what happened, in my memory at least. My memory was the Germans just botched the rescue, did all the shooting, and that made it ever more horrific.

“It certainly all took from the experience. When I think about my memory of Munich, that’s really the only one.”

Botched police rescue

By mid-morning the terrorists had thrown Weinberg’s body out of the front door of the apartment to demonstrate their resolve. As part of the negotiations, the Germans offered the Palestinians an unlimited amount of money for the release of the athletes. The terrorists refused.

By mid-afternoon, a squad of 38 West German police officers arrived the Olympic Village, dressed in Olympic sweatsuits. They had no experience in combat or hostage rescue. The plan was to crawl down from the ventilation shafts and kill the terrorists off-guard.

All the while camera crews filmed a live broadcast of the German officers, enabling the terrorists to watch the police preparing to attack. Footage shows one of the kidnappers peering from the balcony door while one of the police officers stands on the roof just above. After a fresh threat to kill two of the hostages, the officers retreat.

Among the Irish team members to have finished their competition at that point was Margaret Murphy, a 27-year-old mother of two from Cork city, living in Ballyvourney, where her husband, Paud, was a schoolteacher.

She qualified late on in both the 100m hurdles and the pentathlon, one of only three women on the Irish athletics team along with middle distance runners Clare Walsh and Mary Tracey.

Murphy, now living in Abbeydorney, Co Kerry, was a pioneer of Irish women’s athletics in many ways.

“I suppose it was unusual that my husband, Paud, travelled out. Also that I was married with two children. Claire Walsh was in the same position. I remember when I qualified for the Europeans in Helsinki in the long jump, the year before, there was a headline in the paper that said ‘Mother of two leaps into Europe.’”

The night the terrorists broke in I was actually in Munich that night, with my husband — got back kind of late and there was no problem getting back into the village

—  Margaret Murphy

“My main memory of it was I was finished in my main event, the pentathlon, and had enjoyed that experience. I was at the other end of the scale compared to Mary Peters, from Belfast, who won the gold medal.

“But I got some coaching from Sean and Maeve Kyle, who knew Mary as well, were good friends, and I remember the morning of the pentathlon we were warming up in the waiting area, and Mary came over the me, wished me luck, knowing my connection with the Kyles, and I always thought that was very nice.

“I also remember we were out there in Munich about two weeks before, training in advance, and with Claire Walsh, and Mary Tracey, later Mary Purcell, we were the only three women on the athletics team. I was sharing with Claire, and the men weren’t allowed in at all, except the women could go into the men’s village. The women’s village was wired off, and there was always someone at the entrance.

“Then the night the terrorists broke in I was actually in Munich that night, with my husband — got back kind of late and there was no problem getting back into the village. So we didn’t hear anything until the following morning, when we saw the announcement on the television, inside in the dining hall. That was the first I heard of it.

“There was a lot of talk and rumour then the Games would be cancelled, but instead they paused everything for a day, and then I remember they had a memorial service in the stadium, but not everyone went to that because space was limited.

“I remember too the closing ceremony was a day late, because of the delay, and some us missed that, because flights were already arranged, and we were to go back on that day.

“I still have my uniform from Munich, in the press up in the bedroom, I kept a lot of cuttings from that era, too. But it definitely put a dampener on the whole thing, really, and it was tougher on those who hadn’t yet competed. Still I always thought it was the right decision for the Games to continue.”

Airport tragedy

At 6pm Munich time, the terrorists issued a new demand: transportation to Cairo. The German police feigned agreement. The plan instead was to ambush the terrorists as they boarded the plane and free the hostages, without conceding to any of the demands.

Later two military helicopters transported the terrorists and hostages to nearby Fürstenfeldbruck, a Nato airbase, landing at 10.30pm, when things slowly and then suddenly went badly wrong. Five West German policemen were deployed around the airport in sniper roles, believing they had only five terrorists to take out, not eight.

Initially, four pilots and six of the terrorists emerged, but the West German police aboard the aircraft had voted to abandon their mission, without consulting central command. The first sniper opened fire around 11pm, and so began the botched rescue that lasted just over an hour.

At 12.04am, one of the terrorists in the first helicopter fired at point-blank range and killed Springer, Halfin and Friedman instantly, Berger possibly surviving before a grenade was tossed into the cockpit, exploding and incinerating the four bound Israelis inside.

At the second helicopter, another terrorist opened fire on the remaining five hostages. Gutfreund, Shorr, Slavin, Spitzer and Shapira were shot an average of four times each. Five of the terrorists were also killed, along with one German police officer. In total, 17 people were killed.

By 1.30am, it was over.

At 3.24am, Jim McKay, broadcasting live on ABC, told the world: “You know, when I was a kid, my father used to say, ‘Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realised’ ... Our worst fears have been realised tonight.”

At that point in the Games, Philip Conway, the only individual field event athlete on the Irish team, had yet to compete. After the 36-hour postponement it was announced the Games would continue, with every remaining event taking place a day later than planned. By then Conway’s Olympic experience had already been mixed.

“For me my Olympics [achievement] was qualifying, really, the sheer journey of getting there over the 10 years after growing up in Dún Laoghaire, when sailing was my first love, through my dad, before I first heard of people running down the pier for fitness. For some reason that triggered it for me.

“At Rockwell I got involved in rugby and the shot put, Dr Pat O’Callaghan given me some early encouragement, and by the time I got to Munich I was a bit of the odd man out, as the only field event athlete.

“Going into the stadium for the opening ceremony, I was at the back of the group: myself; Dr Pat O’Callaghan’s youngest son, Hugh, who was a manager with the weightlifters, and the previous record holder of the Irish shot; and one of the sailors, marching down the tunnel. They played A Long Way to Tipperary on the speakers, which was certainly a novelty, given I was beside Hugh O’Callaghan, who was from Clonmel, and Tipperary is where I learned the shot.

I knew an academic discus thrower, Gideon Ariel, from Israel, and he had been visiting his friends in the Israeli quarters, and I remember meeting him later on, telling me he was lucky he didn’t stay the night

—  Philip Conway

“I remember as well thinking the Olympic Stadium was an anticlimax. Before that all the stadium was bowl-shaped, coliseum-type things, and the German engineers came up with this spider’s web, I thought it was awful. I had all the posters since 1896, and the very one I made didn’t get me right.

“Also, because of the way the village was laid out — Ireland, India, Israel — our block wasn’t too far from where the action was. But we were in bed when it started; only heard about it later in the morning. I remember there was a village newspaper every morning as well, and there may have been something in then.

“Though I didn’t compete until afterwards, and everything was held up for a day, I never actually believed they would cancel the Games, given the logistics involved.

“I also knew an academic discus thrower, Gideon Ariel, from Israel, and he had been visiting his friends in the Israeli quarters, and I remember meeting him later on, telling me he was lucky he didn’t stay the night.

“We were watching on TV, fellas with hooded masks, although I’ve no recollection of seeing anybody on a balcony. Later I went back to America to finish my master’s, and ended up talking a lot about it to them. They were fascinated by the whole thing.

“I remember West Germany didn’t want to make it super-security. I think to get in and out of the village you had to show a pass, then they might recognise you, but it was more officialdom than security. And a couple of fellas made up their own pass, pretending to be athletes. It was loose — it was definitely loose.

“After the massacre it was definitely subdued, but then most athletes were young, moved on from it quite quickly. It was maybe later when they made those movies about it that you knew this was a such defining moment in the history of the Olympics.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics