Berlin (1936) & Munich Olympics (1972)

Bloodshed and Politics Over the Olympic Rings

By Joe Sherman and Brian Keleher




In both 1936 and 1972, Germany was the center of sports for a period of time. In these years, Germany hosted the Olympic Games, once in Berlin, once in Munich. These Olympics are remembered for the dramatic events that took place during the games. In 1936, Jesse Owens, an African-American, proved to the world that the Aryan race was not the superior to all others, as it was thought to be. In 1972, terror struck in Munich as the feud between the Palestinians and Israelis displayed itself at the Olympics. These two events are examples of how different organizations use public events to convey their views to the world.

Berlin Olympics

Germany's Motive


After World War I, Germany was seen as an outcast of the world community. This all changed on May 13, 1931 when the International Olympic Committee, with its leader Count Henri Baillet-Latour, decided that the 1936 Olympic games would be held in Berlin, Germany. This was a great moment for Germany; it gave them a chance to show the world how great and powerful they believed they were. For some people in Germany, like the rising Nazi party, this was also a chance to show the world that the Aryan race was superior to all other races. This message is one that would be drilled into the heads of many Germans, who would never accept the idea to be untrue.

When Germany was first announced as the host of the next Olympics, it was in a period of democracy. Yet this changed two years later when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of the nation and used his power to turn the democracy in place into a dictatorship. Hitler's influence spread throughout German society and changed everything it touched. Among other things changed in society, German sport was Nazified. Nazi leaders were put in charge of all kinds of sport-related activities, events, and organizations. Such changes were made as the weekly amount of gym class for German children was raised, and non-Aryans such as Jew and Gypsies were excluded from sports. This concentration on sports was an attempt to strengthen the Aryan race:


"German sport has only one task: to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence."-- Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, April 23, 1933.


Persecution in Sports

The rest of the world was not blind to the fact that Hitler and his people were excluding certain people from the country's athletic fields. Soon after Hitler took power, people in the United States and other nations began to question Germany's motives for holding the Olympics. Avery Brundage, the president of the American Olympic Committee, commented on the German's exclusion of different peoples from their sports saying, "The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race." Because of these doubts of German motives, in 1934 an investigation was made of the German sports facilities. The inspectors announced that no serious infractions of racial decency were found, so the Olympic games would still be held in Berlin.

Other than the persecution of Jews, the world was worried that Blacks would be mistreated in the Olympic games. There was a possibility of boycotting the 1936 Olympics, and many African-Americans were unhappy about this. They believed that the games would prove to be a chance for Blacks to contradict the Germans' view about Aryan superiority and would bring a sense of pride to the African race. In 1936, when the Olympic games were taking place, 18 African-Americans could be found competing with the Germans in Berlin.

The Nazi Olympics


At the site of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Nazi flags, posters, banners and propaganda of all sorts could be seen in any part of the city. Hitler and his Nazi party were taking full advantage of the situation. A column in the Douglass Tribune on Friday, August 28, 1936, written by an American in Berlin named Esther Myers, describes the atmosphere of the Olympic games:


"We arrived in Berlin Friday evening before the games opened on Saturday. We found Berlin in festive array. The great avenue Unter den Linden, was bordered on either side by the Nazi flags, posters of German towns…loud-speakers were spaced all along the broad center parking."


Most tourists, like Esther Myers, were oblivious to the fact that the Germans had recently removed anti-Jewish posters and other hateful propaganda from the city streets. Despite the Nazi's efforts, the whole world would soon know that the Germans did not believe in racial equality.

The eighteen African-American athletes competing in the games won the U.S. 14 medals. Jesse Owens was the center of attention of the African-American competitors. Jesse received gold medals for the 100 and 200-meter dashes, the broad jump, and was a member of the winning 400-meter relay team. The Germans were reluctant to award an African-American with these medals because they knew Jesse Owens had showed the world that the Aryan race could be beaten.

Munich Olympics

The attack


On September 5, 1972, an event struck that would be written worldwide. It was 4:30 in the morning on Sept. 5, 1972, when five Arab terrorists wearing track sweat suits climbed the six-foot six-inch fence surrounding the Olympic Village. They were seen by several people, no one thought anything was unusual since athletes routinely hopped the fence. At just about 5 o'clock, the Arabs knocked on the door of the Israeli wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg. When Weinberg opened the door he realized something not right and shouted a warning to his athletes. He and weightlifter Joseph Romano attempted to block the door while other Israelis escaped. The heroes were killed by the terrorists. The Arabs then succeeded in rounding up nine Israelis to hold as hostages.

At 9 o'clock the terrorists announced that they were Palestinian, and that they wanted 200 Arab prisoners released and that they be given safe passage out of Germany. After countless hours of intense negotiations, the PLO group agreed to a plan where they would be taken by helicopter to the NATO air base at Firstenfeldbruck, where they would be given an airplane to fly them and the hostages to Cairo. The Israelis were then taken by bus to the helicopters and flown to the airfield. In the course of the transfer, the Germans discovered that there were 3 more terrorists instead of the five they originally had expected and realized that they had not assigned enough sharpshooters to carry out the plan to kill the terrorists at the airport.


After the helicopters landed at the air base about 10:30 p.m., the German marksmen attempted to kill the terrorists and soon a bloody firefight started. At 11, Almost an hour later, however, new fighting broke out and one of the helicopters holding the Israelis was blown up by a terrorist grenade. The remaining hostages in the second helicopter were shot and killed by one of the remaining terrorists.


The Impact on the World


Since the Olympics is a symbol of unity between all nations, this was a shock to everyone. The Olympic events were postponed for a few days, just for the sake of everyone else's protection. While the whole world felt upset, the Israeli nation in itself, was hit the hardest. The Palestinians could have struck at anytime in Israel, but since this is a worldwide event, they knew that this would be publicized and everyone would see the terror that they could bring. While this was a tragic event, everyone learned a valuable lesson. No one is ever safe, no matter if it's a big event like the Olympics, or just in your neighborhood.


Both the Berlin and Munich Olympics opened the eyes of the world to things they might have not seen before. In Berlin, Nazi hatred and persecution was visible, and was a sign of things to come. In Munich the age-old battle between Palestine and Israel exhibited itself in the Olympics. Both the Nazis and the PLO group, Black September, used the Olympics as a way to show the massive audience what they wanted to express. It is obvious by the way the world reacted to both of these events that a reaction was made, and the groups' message felt. When such awful things as terrorism and racism show up in an event like the Olympics, which represents peace, unity, and pride in one's culture, one can see that something is seriously wrong with the world we live in. It is up to us and the further generations to use these events as a lesson, and to prevent things like this from ever happening again.



Bachrach, Susan. The Nazi Olympics. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 2000

 From this there were a complete description of the events involved with the Berlin Olympics. Good pictures.


"Black September." 2000.

 Decent information about Black September.


Jewish Virtual Library. "The Nazi Olympics." 2003. (21 Nov. 2003).

 This website focused more on persecution of Jews during Olympics than on Blacks.


Johnson, Oscar William. The Olympics: A History of the Games. Birmingham: Oxmoor House, Inc., 1992.

 Good photos of the races, including ones from Jesse Owens. Interesting facts on what Jesse Owen's life was like after the Olympics.


Myers Esther. "Traveling in Europe." The Douglass Tribune. 28 Aug.1936. Nov. 2003)

 Primary Source information: Description of the Olympic Games, souvenirs from the games, pictures, letters and such.


Nagdimov, Rafayel. Munich September 5, 1972. 2003 (24 Nov. 2003)

 Comprehensive site about the Munich massacre including information, pictures of the event, political cartoons, and biographies.


New York Times: Wednesday, September 6, 1972 Front Page (A-1)- Primary Source

 Gave key, more precise information since it was the day after the terrorists struck. All current facts.


Mike Morrison The Worst Tragedy in Modern Olympic History

 This gave a broad outline of what happened in Munich, who the terrorists were, where it was, and how the Israelis were involved.


Holocaust Learning Center

 This gave information from when Hitler was elected chancellor, to the preparations of the games, and events after the Olympics: When Germany invaded Poland.


Jesse Owens

 Shows the hero of the Olympics in Berlin. How many medals he won and how many records he set.


The Twentith Centrury: The Great Depression and WWII (1930-1945)

Macmillian Publishing Company NY 1992

More information about the propaganda used by Hitler.


The Twentieth Century: Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam Era (1950-1974)

Macmillian Publishing Company NY 1992

Many accounts of people reflecting on the terrible event in Munich.


The Reader's Composition ti American History: Jesse Owens

C. Robert Barnett Houghton Miffline Co. 1991

Overview of Jesse Owen's life.


When the Terror Began: Thrity Years Later, the hostage drama that left 11 Israeli Olympians dead seems even more chilling and offers grime reminders to todays security experts.

Sports Illustrated: Alexander Wolff 2002 Time Inc.

Connection to today's necessity to security.