Kay Schiller's and Christopher Young’s history of the Munich Olympics in 1972 is a study of work undone. Even the most successful large sporting events are ephemeral compared to the preparatory labors that go into them. Two weeks or a month of medal chasing or ball chasing are preceded by years of planning, and the transience of the show is justified by the hope that the memory of the event will live on as a gleaming shorthand for a city, or a country, and its place in the world.
But in the case of Munich in 1972, the imbalance between preparation and the result is even more pronounced. In the popular imagination, as the authors of this history admit, the memory of the games does not extend far beyond the events of September 5th, when members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September burst into the lodgings of the Israeli team. The chain of events that began on Connollystrasse in the Olympic Village ended in the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes and coaches, and permanently smashed the organizers’ hopes that their games would present an enduring new image of post-war Germany to the world.
Recent slices of popular culture such as Steven Spielberg’s Mossad revenge tragedy Munich and Kevin Macdonald’s Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September have ensured that terror remains intimately associated with the afterlife of the 1972 games. Even Mark Spitz’s heroics in the pool, his haul of seven gold medals (which remained unsurpassed until Beijing two years ago), still carries less weight then the infamous photographs of a masked gunman on the balcony of the Israeli team’s apartment.
Schiller and Young seek to recast this narrative. Theirs is not a history of the Black September attack – indeed, that element is given oddly short shrift. Instead, they aim to tell the story of the preparations for the games, placing the whole undertaking of Munich against the fabric of, and indeed as a shaping force within, post-war West German society. The International Olympic Committee (in the authors’ words, “a high-profile, outmoded, powerful and self-deluded international body”) accepted Munich’s bid—championed by Hans-Jochen Vogel, the city’s mayor, and Willi Daume, the president of the German Sports Association—in Rome six years before the opening ceremony. By tracing the multiyear preparations of the Olympics, Schiller and Young are able to view a significant period in German history through a distinctive prism.
1968 is the crux moment here. The year—with its militant student uprisings and disgruntled young people, cast shadows over the Munich project. The modern Olympic movement had fetishized the concept of “youth” since the French Baron de Coubertin fathered it in the late nineteenth century. “How exactly were they to organize an event, defined famously since the day of de Coubertin as a celebration for the 'youth of the world,' when its chief participants had become distinctly disaffected,” the authors ask.
In the end, the middle-aged planners of the Munich games made some concessions, encouraging visitors to the Olympic park to “walk on the grass” and “pick the flowers.” Elsewhere though, they remained determined to shape much of the response to the zeitgeist on their own terms, notably in the handling of the Spielstrasse, a collection of performance art spaces near the athletic venues. “Over 'years of difficult negotiations,' the venture became shorter and less radical from one meeting to the next, ever more well behaved and conventional, and, in the eyes of some critics, even something of a museum piece,” Schiller and Young write.
The disaffected young Germans of 1968 were so estranged from their parents—arguably more so than their contemporaries in the United States or other European countries—because the previous generation had experienced National Socialist rule and catastrophic military defeat and they had not. Yet when Munich’s Olympic bid was accepted, it was one aspect in particular of the Nazi past that was suddenly of overarching relevance—namely, the previous occasion that Germany had hosted the games. In Berlin in 1936, Hitler had hijacked de Coubertin’s ideals and created a spectacle that served as a mass pageant of Nazi ideology, recorded for ever in the celluloid of Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia. But while 1936 did act as a constant foil and preoccupation for the organisers of Munich, 1972, Schiller and Young argue that the idea that Hitler’s games were addressed or repudiated in a consistent fashion is overly simplistic. “In 1972”, they observe, “there were contesting views of 1936, which could swirl and fall across a broad spectrum of opinion.”
On the one hand, Otl Aicher, the head of the Olympic design team—whose anti-Nazi credentials were affirmed by his former membership in the White Rose resistance circle—openly admired the aesthetic strength of 1936, even as he deplored Hitler’s beliefs. Aicher determined that Munich should offer equally potent, albeit quite distinct, images to convey its antithetical ideological stance. In particular, contrasting colors were used to lay down the ghosts of Berlin while maintaining Munich’s visual punch. The authors note that “avoiding the red and gold of the Nazi dictatorship (save some minor use of the former in a bright, strident hue), the core colours of light blue and green, supported by silver and white, and supplemented by yellow, orange, dark green, blue and occasionally even brown, defined the Olympic palette.”
Aicher’s designs may have provided a deliberate antithesis to 1936, but the German organizers also had to deal with Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic committee, who had a rather different perspective on Hitler’s games. A Chicago tycoon and career anti-Semite who had derailed the Jewish led-campaign to boycott the Olympics in 1936, Brundage was “the biggest fan of a Germany that no longer existed,” and during the run up to Munich he would embarrass “the 1972 organizers on public visits to the Federal Republic by comparing the forthcoming events with its 'infamous' predecessor.”
Despite the lucidity of their analysis of the broad lifecycle of the Munich games, Schiller’s and Young’s narrative could use a wider perspective than the book provides. If the great project of German national redefinition though sport that Munich hoped to accomplish in 1972 failed because of Black September, the same objective has subsequently been accomplished.
Schiller and Young are dismissive of the symbolic properties of soccer tournaments in comparison to Olympic Games, claiming that the World Cup in 1974, which West Germany hosted and won, had less cultural weight than the Olympiade two years earlier. Yet the 2006 Soccer World Cup, hosted by a reunited Germany, undoubtedly did achieve a lasting transformation in the country’s self-identity. For the first time there was widespread exhibition of the black, red, and yellow tricolor flag, easy patriotism on display in the stadiums and the public viewing areas, and a young generation of fans that showed a simple pride in their nationality that would have been inconceivable in their parent’s generation. The German national spirit has been substantially re-crafted through sport, and Schiller's and Young’s analysis of an earlier failure to achieve the same objective would have benefited by casting its gaze forward as well as back.
Simon Akam is a British writer and former Berlin resident. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian.