When the Summer Olympic Games opened in Munich 40 years ago today, its motto was "the Happy Games."
Germany — which was divided into East and West in 1972 — was hosting its first Olympics since Nazi Germany hosted the 1936 Games in Berlin. West Germany was eager to provide a contrasting image to the world, reassuring all who watched that the Germany of 1972 was not the Germany of 1936. It was a place where people of all races and religions could come and compete peacefully.
More than 7,000 athletes from 121 nations participated in those Summer Games, and there were, as always, memorable moments.
- American swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, setting a standard that stood for more than 35 years.
- Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut captured the hearts of viewers around the world — as well as a few medals.
- America's basketball team lost the gold medal to the Soviets in a controversial finish. The Americans refused to accept the silver medal, which is still in Switzerland.
The image that emerged from the 1972 Games was not one of joy and optimism. It was more accurately summed up in a photograph by Kurt Strumpf of the Associated Press showing an Arab terrorist — a member of a group calling itself "Black September" — wearing a ski mask at the living quarters of the Israeli athletes.
The members of Black September broke into the Olympic Village on Sept. 5, 1972, and took 11 Israeli hostages. Two resisted and were killed on the spot; the rest were executed later.
A West German police officer and five terrorists were killed as well.
Initially, Olympic events were suspended, but then the International Olympic Committee's president declared, "The Games must go on!"
And so they did.
But the atmosphere was different. There was no longer a joyful feeling of brotherhood. Back here in the United States, it seemed that people were watching with their collective breath held and their fingers crossed, just hoping to finish the Games without anyone else being hurt or killed.
And it was with a sense of relief — and a collective release of held breath — that the world witnessed the comparatively peaceful conclusion of the 1972 Summer Olympics.
Fortunately, the Olympics have not been disrupted by violence — just politics — in the four decades since.
But, sadly, the threat has not diminished.
I don't know what the answer is.
We can continue to pretend that nothing like that can possibly happen again — until it does.
Or greater steps can be taken to truly promote the concepts of brotherhood and friendly competition.
That may be nearly impossible to achieve, given the vast differences and ancient animosities between some cultures. The Hatfields and McCoys had nothing some of these disputes.
But it may be the only plausible goal. Terrorism in the 20th century was bad enough with automatic weapons, but terrorism in the 21st century might involve nuclear weapons — the so–called "dirty bombs".
Still largely theoretical, these bombs wouldn't be as efficient as conventional nuclear weapons, but they could be capable of contaminating everything within a certain range of ground zero with high doses of radioactive material.
The detonation of such a bomb certainly would get the world's attention — and that is what terrorists crave.
They can also achieve attention through an invitation to negotiate, which may not be preferable, but it usually involves a lot less violence.
The time may be coming when the officials of the Olympics have to decide how they will continue to pursue their own goals while co–existing with those who wish to do them harm.