Munich ’72, Fredborg and Black September

A few weeks ago, I met at a reception at DOKK1 in Aarhus one of the “sports heroes” from my childhood: Niels Fredborg. Immediately, I recognized 75-year-old Fredborg and we had a good conversation about many different topics: financial advice, Saxild Strand – where both Niels and my parents had a summer house for a number of years – the difference between living in Copenhagen and Aarhus, golf and of course the experiences at Aarhus Cycle Track in the 1960’s and 1970’s, where the Sprint Grand Prix with the participation of e.g. the elegant Frenchman Daniel Morelon and the “Russian bear” Omari Phakadze as well as the Danish Championship finals in sprint and 1,000 meters time trial between the police officer Peder Pedersen and Niels Fredborg attracted more with 10,000 spectators. It was these experiences that made Niels Fredborg one of Denmark’s best track riders of all time. And which motivated a 12-year-old boy to take part in the “Young People’s Cycle Race” around Lake Brabrand and to spend many evenings by the railings on the Aarhus Cycle Track.

Niels Fredborg – Olympic champion and triple World champion

Niels Fredborg started racing at the Aarhus Cycle Track in 1962, where he won the first Danish Championship in sprint as a 16-year-old. Until his career as a professional track rider ended in 1980, he won a total of 27 Danish championships, participated in 4 Olympic Games (1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976) and became triple world champion (1967, 1968 and 1970) in his favorite discipline 1,000 meters time trial. It was also in the favorite discipline that Fredborg won 3 Olympic medals: silver in 1968, gold in 1972 and bronze in 1976. Especially the Olympic gold medal in Munich, which I followed closely to the family’s new color television, is still sharp in my memories today. After the Olympic silver medal four years earlier in Mexico City, Fredborg was among the favorites for the Olympic gold medal in Munich. And after the 30 riders had completed the time trial, it was clear that the 25-year-old from Aarhus had the fastest time – 1:06.44. Danny Clark of Australia (1:06.87) won silver and Jürgen Schütze of GDR (1:07.02) took the bronze medal. It would later turn out that Fredborg’s gold medal became Denmark’s only medal at the Olympics in 1972. The national competition was won by the Soviet Union with no fewer than 50 gold medals ahead of the USA and the GDR – or East Germany (1949-1990) – the communist state, which strategically used elite sport as political propaganda by scientific training methods and systematic doping.

1972 Olympics – The “cheerful” games and the legacy of Berlin ’36

From the end of the 1940’s until the end of the 1980’s, as a consequence of the collapse of Nazi Germany in World War II, Europe was divided into two spheres of interest: East with the Warsaw Pact and West with NATO as military alliances and especially the establishment of the Berlin Wall in 1961 as a ” anti-fascist protective wall” seriously intensified the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States as military superpowers. The buildup of nuclear weapons by the two superpowers escalated throughout the 1960’s and several times threatened a nuclear war. The Cold War did not only take place by military armrace, but also at international sporting events such as the Olympics. The “cheerful” games – as the Olympics in Munich were called – were for West Germany a welcome opportunity to show the rest of the world that the nation had risen up – democratically, economically and culturally – after Hitler’s National Socialist Third Reich, which used the 1936 Olympics in Berlin for one of the biggest propaganda numbers in world history. A few days after Fredborg’s triumph, however, the Munich Olympics were struck by a terrible tragedy which affected the whole world. And which put extra focus on a conflict which was also a consequence of Nazi Germany’s systematic genocide of 5-6 million Jews in the period 1933-1945.

Connolly Strasse 31 – Death’s waiting room

In the early morning of September 5, 1972, eight members of the Palestinian group “Black September” – a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – broke into the Olympic Village, killed two Israeli athletes and took nine other Israeli athletes as hostage. The terrorist group demanded the release of 236 Palestinians detained in Israel as well as the release of the two German Rote Armee Fraktion terrorists Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. The Israelis totally refused to negotiate with the terrorists and instead asked the German government for permission to send a special force to Munich, but this proposal was rejected by the German government. I still vividly remember the “live television” from Connolly Strasse 31, which were broadcast to more than 900 million viewers around the world. The 1972 Olympics were the first time that the games’ competitions were broadcast live on TV. For the next 21 hours, the whole world waited with intense tension for the actions of the terrorists, policemen and politicians inside and outside the Olympic Village. The negotiations ended without result, after which the terrorists and hostages were transported to Fürstenfeldbruck Airport to being flown to a country in the Middle East. The rescue operation launched by German police at the airport was a total failure, as all nine Israeli hostages were killed by the terrorists. German police managed to kill five of the terrorists, while three were captured alive. A few days after the tragedy in Munich, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, with the assistance of the Israeli Air Force, chose to attack PLO military facilities and civilian Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon as revenge for the terrorist attack in Munich. And at the same time, the Prime Minister assured that the Israeli security service would in future kill all “Black September terrorists” – regardless of where in the world they were.

“The show must go on” – but everything has (un)changed

The terrorist attack had occurred at the worst imaginable time and in the worst imaginable place – during the world’s biggest “people’s festival” in Munich, which in the late 1920’s and through the 1930’s was Hitler’s favorite “home town”. The International Olympic Committee had to make decisions with far-reaching consequences at lightning speed. During Tuesday 5 September, more and more Olympic competitions were canceled and the Olympics were suspended for 34 hours after the failure at Fürstenfeldbruck Airport – the whole world waited in suspense. The IOC decided to hold a memorial ceremony for the victims, where the IOC president uttered the famous words: “The show must go on” – The rest of the Olympic competitions were held in the following days, but everything was (un)changed.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine, which can be traced back to several centuries of disputes between Jews and Arabs over the “Holy Land”, remains unresolved. The number of terrorist attacks rooted in the conflicts between Jews and Arabs and between Muslims and Christians has expanded in recent decades. And the Municipality of Aarhus has just decided to remove the Aarhus Cycle Track from the map – only a very few jubilant optimists now have hope and faith in a new indoor cycle track in Denmark’s second largest city. Even though Denmark has won Olympic medals in track cycling at the last 4 Olympics.


David Clay Large: Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triump at the Olympic Games (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012)

Simon Reeve: One Day in September: The Full Story of the 1972 Munich Massacre and the Israeli Revenge Operation “Wrath of God” (Arcade Publishing, 2001)

Kay Schiller & Chris Young: The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany (University of California Press, 2010).