The Olympic dream of Israeli weightlifter Joseph Romano ended with a knee injury on September 3rd, 1972.
His life ended two days later when armed Palestinian terrorists invaded Munich’s Olympic Village and took the Israeli team hostage.
Hobbling on crutches and wielding only a fruit knife, the 32-year-old Romano faced down the hostage takers, ripping a rifle from one gunman before another shot him dead.
With 900 million people watching the hostage drama live, the first global drama of its kind ended in tragedy. In total 11 Israelis lost their lives as a result of a bungled attempt to rescue them.
Half a century on, when Germany remembers the Olympic massacre in a special ceremony next month to be attended by German federal president Frank Walter Steinmeier, Romano’s widow will not attend. Nor, it seems, will any other relatives of the dead.
“We will boycott the ceremony,” said Ilana Romano, who in 1972 was left with four small children to raise. Along with Ankie Spitzer, another Munich widow, Ms Romano has led relatives’ efforts to secure more generous compensation.
Their absence in Munich, they say, is their form of protest over outstanding disagreements over compensation – and ongoing secrecy over what exactly happened 50 years ago.
These were supposed to be “the cheerful games”. In a daringly modern Olympic stadium and village, Munich’s 1972 tournament was a unique chance for West Germany to present itself as a modern, normal European country and distance itself from the ghosts of its militaristic, Nazi past.
Nothing was allowed to cloud the mood. Not even an urgent telegram, sent on August 14th, 1972, from the West German embassy in Beirut to Bonn.
A Libyan contact had told a diplomat that “the Palestinians will stage an incident during the games”. The foreign ministry in Bonn passed it to Bavaria’s state security, recommending they “take every security measure possible”.
Days later, a second warning came when police in the western city of Dortmund passed on a tip-off of “possible conspirative Palestinian activity” at the games.
While 15,000 police were on standby in Munich, Bavaria’s police chief and games organisers insisted the “friendly games” would tolerate only 2,000 unarmed orderlies in blue blazers in and around the stadium.
At 4.30am on September 5th eight tracksuit-wearing members of the “Black September” group walked right into the Israeli camp.
Armed with assault rifles, pistols and grenades, they announced to the world their demands: in exchange for their Israeli hostages, they wanted 234 Palestinian sympathisers released from Israeli jails – as well as leading imprisoned members of West Germany’s far-left Red Army Faction terrorist group.
The first to die was coach Moshe Weinberg, then Joseph Romano. It took 12 hours after their deaths for the games to be suspended, though not cancelled.
With nine surviving hostages, frantic negotiations began. A first effort by police – also wearing tracksuits – to overpower the kidnappers was abandoned after they realised they were being broadcast on live television.
When the hostage-takers demanded free passage to Cairo, five armed German police officers were hidden around a nearby air base and a waiting plane.
When they opened fire, the terrorists shot dead the Israeli athletes at point-blank range, tossing a grenade into the helicopter where they were tied up.
Even 50 years on, many questions about what happened in Munich – and why – remain unanswered. Last month, Bavaria released more classified files but Ankie Spitzer says she and other relatives are tired of “50 years of defamation, lies, humiliation and denial” from Berlin and Bavaria.
They have described as an “insult” a German compensation offer of €10 million, which includes total payments of about €4.5 million made in 1972 and 2002. They are demanding €165 million in a lawsuit and suggest Berlin calibrates its compensation payments against the much higher payouts after the Lockerbie air disaster. New evidence suggests that, as with the 1988 plane bombing, Libya financed the Munich attack 16 years earlier.
Israeli relatives say additional compensation payments could be financed from confiscated Libyan state funds.
Germany insists its offer is at the “highest threshold” for terrorism cases and remains hopeful, a spokesman added, “that a way will be found so that the bereaved can decide after all to take part in the memorial ceremony”.