During the 1960s and 70s, writes Gil Troy, both the United Nations and the Olympics represented a hopefulness about a future very different from the bloody first half of the 20th century. The former provided a forum where nations could come together to work through their differences over a negotiating table; the latter an opportunity for people all over the world to channel rivalries through sport rather than armed conflict. For Troy, and others, that image was shattered at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where, 50 years ago this week, Palestinian terrorists murdered eleven Israeli athletes and a German policeman:
Suddenly, the Munich Olympics were defined by the Palestinian terrorists in those ghoulish stocking caps and the discordant sweatsuits, who sauntered into the Olympic village. After negotiating for hours, the Germans botched the rescue operation. . . . It was obvious to everyone I knew—mourning these young Israeli heroes, one of whom tried barricading the door with his body—that these Olympic games should end.
This tragedy offered the International Olympic Committee (IOC) an opportunity to do penance for greenlighting the infamous 1936 Hitler games. Yet, like something out of a novel, Avery Brundage, the same mean-spirited, severe-looking, anti-Semitic International Olympics Committee president who approved Hitler’s hosting then, insisted the “games must go on” in Germany 36 years later.
Remarkably, the more Palestinian terrorists terrorized innocents, the more international recognition their cause achieved. Two years later, the UN welcomed the head of the PLO. Yasir Arafat, the grandfather of modern terrorism, became the first representative of a non-member organization to address the General Assembly—sporting a holster to back up his menacing tone.
Since then, the UN has often functioned as the Third World dictators’ debating society, while sports have become increasingly politicized.