In the spring of 1996, when I traveled to Munich for a trade show, naturally I set aside a Saturday afternoon to check out a Bundesliga match. Back then, as the Allianz Stadium remained but a twinkle in the eye of some insurance CEO, Bayern Munich still played its home games at the Olympic Stadium, and so did its local/lesser rival Munich 1860. Because Germany’s Big Red Machine wasn’t in town that weekend, I settled for 1860 home to Dusseldorf, hopped on the U-Bahn, and headed north.
Upon debarking at Olympiazentrum, I wasn’t at all prepared for the wave of visual stimuli. The stadium itself, still wreathed in its distinctive, conical-stretched-sheet latticework, is visible from the train platform. The structure rises in the distance beside another instantly recognizable vestige of the 1972 Games — the former Olympic Village, since repurposed as an apartment complex, Olympisches Dorf. This entirely man-made landscape, including the metro line that conveyed me to this section of Munich, the U-3, had all been designed and constructed specifically to serve the needs of fans and athletes attending the 17th modern Olympiad.
This had been my first visit to Munich, yet all of these physical features were instantly recognizable. The dread-laced nostalgia, still-potent after 24 years, took my breath away. Right there on the train platform, my stomach folded up slightly as I was transported back to 1972, to my first Olympic Games, where I was first introduced to the intersection of sport and politics, violence and public spectacle.
The July 2022 publication of Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & The Making of Soccer in America has transported me back to Munich 1972 repeatedly. My book is not specifically concerned with that Olympic competition, or that era of U.S. soccer frankly — only to the extent that the heroes of my narrative populated the Youth Soccer Revolution during the early 1970s, and started following the North American Soccer League.
However, my story does wonder aloud, quite pointedly throughout, why previous generations of American soccer proved quite so inert. Stories of the 1972 U.S. Olympic soccer team do answer those questions with some depth and nuance. What’s more, because 2022 also marks the 50th anniversary of these games, of the terrorist acts that continue to haunt our collective sporting consciousness, I’ve been commissioned to write a couple magazine pieces detailing the complicated memories of those U.S. soccer players who competed in Munich — one for Soccer America magazine, the other to run at Howler starting Friday, Sept. 30.
In the course of writing those two features, I’ve discovered (or rather rediscovered), just how deeply I myself was affected by the events of September 1972. These were the first Olympics to register with me in any way. Jon Hock’s excellent new documentary — 72: A Gathering of Champions, available at Olympics.com — has driven home to this former 8-year-old just how inspiring, tragic, mesmerizing, and frightening world sport could be.
My family purchased our first-ever color TV in advance of these games: a Sony Trinitron, the first of many my dad would ogle with wonder before saying, to no one in particular, “Would you look at that picture?” Television-watching was strictly rationed in our household, but no one ever said “no” to the Olympics. We were glued to that box from Aug. 26, 1972, when they opened, straight through the evening of Sept. 5, when all of America and the world could not look away.
That morning, at approximately 4:30 a.m. local time, affiliates of the Palestinian militant group Black September scaled a fence outside the Village, broke into a dormitory, then took 11 Israelis hostage — demanding the release of several hundred Palestinian colleagues, whom they considered political prisoners. Two Israelis were slain immediately. The remaining athletes and coaches were held at gunpoint all day, then murdered just past midnight on Sept. 6, during a failed rescue attempt at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base, 15 miles west of the Olympic Village. The tragic arc of these events required just 20 hours of real time. As they played out on live TV, a worldwide audience participated in a communal tragedy — among the first to unfold and be shared in this way. For Americans, the gruesome denouement played out in prime time.
All of those memories blitzed through my head that afternoon in 1996, when I walked past the Village, through Olympic Park to the stadium. Yet, as Hock’s doc reminds us, those Games are resonant of more than tragedy: Mark Spitz and all those medals, of course, but also 800-meter champion Dave Wottle, coming from behind — in a golf cap; Lassie Viren, who claimed the 10,000 meters after falling in lap 12 (he won the 5,000, too); the childlike gymnastics champion Olga Korbut, the seemingly invincible heavyweight boxer Teofilo Stevenson, sprint king Valeriy Borzov and marathon winner Frank Shorter. Hock renews our acquaintance with all of these legends, alongside dozens more stories and characters we may have overlooked or forgotten, especially we second-graders.
Many of these figures lived on beside us throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, furthering their own careers and laying the groundwork for future champions — in disciplines about which we otherwise may not have given a fig. Korbut, for example, ignited a gymnastics craze in the U.S., one only enhanced in 1976 by the exploits of Nadia Comaneci. Wottle and 1,500 meter gold medalist Kip Keino went straight from Munich to a pro track circuit they pioneered.
Pole vault champion Bob Seagren may have authored the most unlikely chain of public events: In 1973, he won the first Superstars competition, a made-for-TV decathlon event that beguiled pre-adolescent boys and, some argue, founded the American trash sports genre. Later in the 1970s, in an act of multiple crossovers, the Hollywood-handsome Seagren appeared on the sitcom Soap — as young Billy Crystal’s gay lover — beating a path for other athletes on TV, gay and otherwise, including the inimitable Bruce Jenner, a product of the next Olympic Games.
Yet there is no escaping the largest headlines still ringing forward from that blackest of Septembers. All Olympic competition was suspended on Sept. 6, 1972. When it resumed the following day, the landscape of international sport was forever changed. However we humans might attempt to learn, adjust, accommodate or avert our eyes, events like these stay with us. The Olympic Village has since been transformed into a bourgeois neighborhood of apartments, shops and coffee houses. Even the effective, altogether respectful repurposing of these facilities — the flats once inhabited by the Israeli delegation in 1972 have been acquired by the Max Planck Institute, which puts up visiting researchers therein — cannot escape the original/lasting connotations, the stains of unforgivable human enterprise.
Historical novelist Hilary Mantel passed away late in September 2022, just as I was writing this blog item. Few people better understood the human condition, the often clumsy exertion of earthly power, and how these acts of cruelty and tragedy stay with us. “When you turn and look back down the years,” she wrote in her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, “you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led; all houses are haunted.”