Tag Archives: Olympics

Heidi Krieger: Blue pills and gold medals.

Heidi Krieger: Blue pills and gold medals.

“I still say today that they killed Heidi”. Andreas Krieger, 2013.

Sport is disparaged by some people for its futility, the idea of adults playing children’s games, wasting their time in pursuit of achievements that make little or no difference to ordinary lives. As a friend of mine once said when asked to watch a soccer match: ‘Oh, I don’t think so. The thought of 22 millionaires chasing a pig’s bladder around a pitch is not really my idea of entertainment’. There is, no doubt, some very real justification for this view, with genuine amazement and anger at some of the wages that are paid to top sports stars – and the astronomical figures that are paid for their transfers between clubs. And  when the hype starts over events such as the Olympics and the World Cup, it is natural that some people will really wonder what all the fuss is about. But as some other posts have suggest, some of us do believe that sport matters and is, at times, rather more than just a game. At its best, people love sport because it is unscripted drama and, without being too grand, it says something about societies and cultures as well as the human condition. The skills, fitness, training, conditioning and teamwork required do offer something to admire; the control of emotions and the handling of pressure can offer insights that are valued by many other professionals; and the intensity of competition, the passion, the spectacle and the final result can inspire individuals, give nations pride and create memories that last a lifetime. From Borg v McEnroe to Ali v Foreman, from the Gladiators to the modern Olympics, from WG Grace to Babe Ruth, from Sumo wrestling to cross country skiing, from Brazil in 1970 to England’s win in the Ashes in 2005, sport matters on so many levels.

But sometimes it’s not quite like that and here are two famous examples of why sport is sometimes less uplifting.

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Italian marathon runner, Dorando Pietri, crosses the line at the end of the marathon in London in 1908.

(Author: unknown; source: here)

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Lance Armstrong heading for victory in the Tour de France, 2003.

(Author: Gawain78 Source: here)

The looks and the style seen in these two photos are quite different but they are rather similar as both lost their titles: Pietri was disqualified after being helped by judges when he fell a  number of times in sight of the line while Armstrong lost all seven of his Tour titles, as well as many other awards, a lot of money and his reputation, after being found guilty of the use of banned drugs. One was an amateur, guilty of getting unexpected help as he pushed himself to the limit in pursuit of a medal; one was found guilty of the planned and systematic use of drugs so as to push his limits beyond any that were possible under his own ability. Something has changed in sport, and in society, in the century that separates Pietri from Armstrong – and that something is not good as it has left question marks over many achievements in many sports, not the least of them being cycling and athletics, which this post will look at a little more.

Once upon a time, in what might be seen as some naive and glorious days, athletics was all about individual people pushing themselves to the limit, developing their skills, working hard and having a good clean competition. They did this while holding down a full-time job and got little or no reward for their labours. But things slowly changed and events like the Olympics, which were re-established in 1896, took on huge overtones of national pride – or at least they did from the 1930s onwards. In the increasingly nationalistic years between the world wars, victory in sport came to signify something special not just for the athlete concerned but for the nation and the system that they represented. Fascist leaders, for example, came to see their top athletes as products of their system, glorifying their stars as symbolic heroes whose powerful bodies and keen minds somehow reflected the supremacy of their ideology. While the record breaking miner, Aleksei Stakhanov (1906-77), might be a hero for Stalin’s Soviet Union, it was the likes of the boxer Max Schmeling (1905-2004) who Hitler wanted to present as a symbol of Nazi supremacy after his defeat of Joe Louis in 1936. Athletes became representatives, role models and examples of the best that a country could offer, symbols of  the ideology, the diet, the coaching, the lifestyle and so on. Sport was seen as a powerful tool for propaganda and a great turning point was reached with the Berlin Olympics of 1936 which Hitler believed had the potential to cast a revitalised Germany with the world  experiencing a spectacular event with Aryan athletes to the fore. As is well known, one Jesse Owens from the USA, put a number of files into the ointment at Berlin but that did not change the idea that sport could be used to enhance political power by the shaping of opinions. Sport had truly taken on a nationalistic dimension and this was only to be increased after World War II.

In the years following 1945, the Cold war developed between the Western powers which favoured capitalism and democracy, under the leadership of the USA, and the Eastern forces which chose state control and Communism, under the guidance of the USSR. Under Joseph Stalin, there was little time for, or interest in, the power of sport but under his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, this was to change. A most significant year in this was 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s famous ‘Secret Speech’ (see the post on Khrushchev) which was part of a change of policy from the time of Stalin. The new idea of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ meant that the USSR was going to compete with the west and defeat it by showing the supremacy of its system in terms of art, culture, industry and, of course, sport. The goal would be that these victories would show the workers of the West that they would be better off under Communism and so lead to a revolution – and the collapse of capitalist democracies. Obviously this did not happen but the rise of Communist countries as sporting powers (at least in simpler sports which did not require too much by way of complex skills or technological expertise, such as motor racing, golf, tennis or horse racing) is obvious from the medals table in the Olympic Games from 1956 onwards (see the post on the Olympic Games). The drive for supremacy started in the USSR but was very soon adopted by the satellite states of Eastern Europe with a special emphasis being placed on women’s sport where things were less developed than in man’s sport and where changes based on greater strength and technique could be quickly turned into progress.

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Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), leader of the USSR whose commitment to ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ after 1956 changed the Cold war and was a major influence in the development of drug use in sport. (Author: Heinz Junge; Source: here)

As mentioned, Communist countries such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany soon developed major sporting programmes. High levels of participation were encouraged, elite athletes were identified, and special coaching facilities were established. The elite athletes became full-time in an age when few could do this in the West. Special diets were developed, new techniques explored and a propaganda system was built up to ensure high levels of support for the programmes. Leading athletes were ‘employed’ by the police or armed forces but then trained full-time at their respective sports. The benefits were clear as the USSR soon overtook the USA as the leading country at the Olympics. This was a huge shock to the USA and the West which had grown used to winning medals and dominating the Olympics, amongst other events. In an age in which television and media coverage of sport was developing rapidly, the sight of Communist athletes racing past the best the West could offer raised many questions – and doubts. These concerns in the West were matched by elation in the East but in the drive to maintain and strengthen the advantage, there was a move towards the first systematic use of drugs to enhance sporting performance, most notably in events which required strength and endurance. From the 1960s through into the 1980s, the use of drugs such as testosterone and anabolic steroids, was widespread, and it was all very easy as there was drugs testing at the time, which seems extraordinary to us but was a sign of the way the system tends to lag behind the cheats. One sign of the widespread power of drug use in these decades can be seen in the many records that were set then which marked extraordinary advances – and have not been matched since, especially in the women’s power events like the shot and discus.

But there was a price to be paid for this, and it fell on the athletes themselves. Young gymnasts, for example, were taken from their homes at an early age and forced to work incredibly long hours, often in great pain. For many of the girls chosen for the programmes, the plan was to keep them underweight so that puberty would be delayed which allowed greater flexibility to be maintained. Some went on to successful careers but many others ended up almost crippled through injuries and arthritis, the results of their work-load, training schedule and diet. However, drug use was most common in the endurance and power events, where anabolic steroids were seen to be hugely beneficial to performance. The discovery of the effects of, for example, testosterone on the female body were known and from the 1960s it was injected into many athletes in Communist countries, nowhere more so than in East Germany. Despite having a population of less than 20 million, only a third of the size of the more affluent West Germany, East Germany rose to be the third most powerful athletics nation in the world behind the USSR and the USA during the 1970s and 1980s. The claim made by the authorities was always that success was down to the power of the Communist system the quality of education, the superiority of coaching and the passion shown by the athletes but there was a simpler element to the reason. The use of drugs, of steroids and testosterone, was never mentioned but its effects were clear to all. The authorities were not keen to investigate because it would undermine the sport and run a risk of causing a massive political incident at a time when the Cold war was at its height but many people had serious questions about the progress made by so many people from a limited number of countries and in such specific events.

One particular story can sum up the experience of as many as ten thousand East German athletes, and the thousands of others from around the world, both under Communism and in the West, who ended up using drugs in sport. This is the story of Heidi Krieger, a shot putter born in East Berlin in 1966.

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Oral-Turinabol tablets as on display at the DDR Museum in Berlin. (Author: User:FA2010; Source: here)

Heidi Krieger was one of those athletes chosen for an athletics programme in this period who, as part of her training, was required to take a small blue pill. It was an anabolic steroid called ‘Oral-Turinabol’, which contained testosterone. It boosted her muscle growth and endurance as well as helping her to recover from injury more quickly. The distances she could throw the shot went up dramatically – but it had side-effects: increased risk of infertility, increased hair growth like stubble and chest hair, increased risk of breast cancer, greater heart problems and the risk of cancer. Heidi Krieger was just one of nearly a thousand athletes who suffered serious consequences from taking ‘Oral-Turinabol’. She was a successful athlete, winning gold in the shot put with a distance of 21.10 metres at the 1986 European Championships at which East German women won four of the six field events. There were 18 medals available in all for these six events and competitors from Communist countries won 15 of them. And it’s interesting to note that the distances achieved in winning the gold medals in the shot, discus and javelin at the European Championships in 1986 were all greater than those that won gold in Beijing Olympics of 2008 or at London in 2012.

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Heidi Krieger (1966-97) (Author: Wolfgang Thieme; Source: here)

But Heidi Krieger was never comfortable in herself after she started being given the bright blue pills when she was 14 or so. She was given the drug regularly over many years, eventually suffering significant side-effects, growing stubble and other bodily hair associated with men and starting to develop male genitalia. She and her friends watched as their noses grew wider, their hands got larger, their muscles expanded and they became more aggressive. Other complications such as depression, severe acne, liver malfunctions, much deeper voices and reduced libidos were all consequences of the ‘bright blue pills’. She eventually reached the point where she saw that the only way out was to have a sex-change operation and so it was that in 1997 she became ‘Andreas Krieger’. As Andreas, he married Ute Krause, a former East German swimmer, who had herself been forced to take ‘Oral-Turinabol’ pills many years before and had been driven to attempt suicide by the effects. The ‘Heidi Krieger Medal’ is now awarded annually in Germany, honouring an athlete who has combated doping in sport; the gold medal from 1986 forms part of the trophy.

The simple facts of the story of Heidi/Andreas Krieger hide the battle for supremacy in the Cold War. Ideology and image was so important that the system was all and individuals ceased to count. Powerful people at the top of the system, especially in Communism, were willing to use and abuse their own citizens in pursuit of victory, seeing each medal and each record as a nail in the coffin of the other side. Sport was as much a part of the Cold War as were speeches, spies and missiles. People were dehumanised in the pursuit of power and many suffered great emotional and psychological pain as well as physical suffering. It is another reminder that sport is important as a reflection of what human beings are capable of doing – both for good and ill.

And what happened through the use of drugs in sport cannot have been what Karl Marx had in mind when he imagined ‘Communism’ as a system which would create a world of opportunity, equality and justice for all. But this is not only a problem of the Eastern Bloc countries in the Cold War for the abuse of drugs in sport was going on in the West before the Berlin wall came down – and it has continued since, and few major countries or sports have escaped their influence: Marco Pantani, Floyd Landis, Lance Armstrong and dozens of others in cycling; Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and many others in athletics; Mark McGwire and so many others in baseball; the lists go on and on.

But for all that,  sport still has the ability to inspire like few other things; maybe its just a tragic reality that drugs will now always be a part of the script and that they have done so much damage to people like Andreas Krieger.

 

Find out more

Books: ‘More Than A Game’ by Jan Stradling (Pier 9, Murdoch Books); ‘Rogues, Rotters, Rascals and Cheats’ by John Perry (John Blake Publishing Ltd., 2007); ‘Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport’ by Chris Clarke (OUP Oxford, 2013); ‘The Dirtiest Race in History: ‘Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 100m Final’ by Richard Moore (Wisden Publishing, 2013);  ‘Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong’ by David Walsh (Simon & Schuster, 2013); ‘The Secret Race: Inside the hidden world of the Tour de France: doping, cover-ups and winning at all costs’ by Tyler Hamilton and David Coyle (Corgi, 2013); ‘The Death of Marco Pantani: A Biography’ by Matt Rendell (Phoenix, 2007).

Film: ‘The Armstrong Lie’ (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2014)

 

 

Hungary, 1956: Blood on the streets and in the water.

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A statue of Imre Nagy, a key figure in the ‘Hungarian Uprising’ of 1956. (Author: Adam78; Source: here)

 

Hungary, 1956: Blood on the streets and in the water

There is something profound and satisfying about the victory of the underdog. It is a fundamental part of the human story reaching back into ancient tales, such as those great matches like David and Goliath from the First Book of Samuel and Aesop’s tale of that tortoise sneaking ahead of a rather cocky hare; they touch into something profound and powerful in the human psyche. Whether it be because of size, age, wealth or weapons, we seem to rejoice in the victory of the weaker or out-numbered force, unless we happen to be on the other side, of course. There is always a story behind such victories, bringing a need to find the cause behind the unexpected result.

The history of sport, of course, provides so many of the most satisfying examples of the mighty being humbled by the lesser power: Germany’s Max Schmeling knocking out the great Joe Louis in 1936; the USA soccer team stunning the world when they beat England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup and Sunderland winning the FA Cup in 1973 against the ‘unbeatable’ Leeds United; Arthur Ashe out thinking Jimmy Connors to win Wimbledon in 1975; Ireland crushing the mighty West Indies at cricket in 1969 after bowling them out for just 25. But it happens in more important matters, too: the Viet Minh withstanding the might of the USA in the Vietnam War; Mahatma Gandhi overcoming the British Empire through peaceful resistance to bring Indian independence; the Montgomery Bus Boycott seeing patience and perseverance rewarded by an end to segregation on the buses.  The commitment, creativity and courage shown in these events from the last century can still serve as an inspiration today. And one of these stories is known as ‘Blood in the water’, an event which combines sport, violence and politics in a game of water-polo.

The story focuses on Hungary, so let’s check where it is by looking at a map of central Europe. today, it is a country of about 10 million people today, one which has a very long and proud tradition; it was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The empire fought with Germany in the Great War (1914-18) before being divided up by the ‘Treaty of Triannon’ (1920), which was part of those agreements which are usually grouped together as ‘The Treaty of Versailles’. Hungary as we know it today was, therefore, created in the wake of the Great War.

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Hungary (Author: CIA; Source: here)

Anyway, now for a little background about the country. Hungary’s country’s capital city is Budapest, a fine place split by the River Danube, the second longest river in Europe which starts in Germany and flows nearly 1800 miles down to the Black Sea. The city is in two halves, the older part being ‘Buda’ on the western side of the river and the newer being ‘Pest’ on the east. The Hungarian language is very unusual, having links with Finnish and Estonian but not much else, so don’t expect to understand much should you visit; there are some very strange letter combinations, like ‘Magyarország’, the name for Hungary itself. By the way, the name ‘Hun’ for a German or Austro-Hungarian soldier in the Great War comes from the fact that the whole of the Central European region was settled by that tribe in the 5th century when they were led by ‘The Scourge of God’, Attila the Hun. That was probably a fairly obvious point but hopefully someone will appreciate it.

Although it has a rich history, Hungary tends to be a bit of a forgotten place for most people today but there are actually quite a few famous Hungarians that you should have heard of: Robert Capa, the photographer; Zsa Zsa Gabor, the actress; Erno Rubik, inventor of the Cube and other time-occupying devices; Lazslo Biro, inventor of the ball-point pen and the automatic gear box for cars; Ferenc Puskas, one of the greatest footballers of all time; Calvin Klein, fashion, and Estee Lauder, make-up; Drew Barrymore, Paul Newman and Tony Curtis are famous actors from a Hungarian background; Bartok and Liszt, are well-known composers; and tennis champion Monica Seles was also from Hungary.

Hungary was profoundly affected by defeat in the Great War. As mentioned above, the ‘Treaty of Trianon’ in 1920 saw similar punishments placed on the country as had been put on Germany by the more famous ‘Treaty of Versailles’. And just as in Germany, deep resentment was felt by the leaders and the people as the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a long and hugely important history as part of the Habsburg (or Hapsburg) domain. This resentment proved to be a potent force, so that when the new Hungary was created, it took little time before it came under the control of a right-wing dictator. This was a less than brilliant but impeccably dressed naval officer called Admiral Horthy Miklos (1868-1957). Despite his limitations, Horthy was actually the longest surviving Fascist dictator of the inter-war period, ruling from 1920 to 1944 and just out-lasting Benito Musssolini in Italy. His position at the head of a fascist government was a sign of the frustration and anger at the defeat in the Great War, and its retreat into narrow and aggressive nationalist thinking echoed that seen elsewhere in the defeated nations.

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Admiral Horthy Miklos (as the surname comes first in Hungarian). One can only admire the hand on the sword, the uniform and the fine array of medals. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

The strong sense of nationalism in Hungary, a country which knew its traditions well, was only natural in a place which saw itself as being at the heart of Central European culture and learning. In the early 20th century, Hungary was a rather important country, being relatively wealthy and well-educated, and occupying a crucial region geographically. The country was used to making alliances, having been tied in with Austria and ruling so many other regions, so it was quite normal to enjoy strong political relations with the likes of Germany and Italy in the inter-war period. The humiliation of 1914-18 drove the country into the hands of the right-wing and so it was only natural that when World War II started, the country would fight alongside the Nazis. Without going into an analysis of the experiences of Hungary during World War II, for they are a major story in their own right, it is vital to know that it was the Soviet forces, the Red Army, which took control in 1945. Obviously, this left the country under the influence of Joseph Stalin and Communism, a massive ideological change compared to what had gone before. Naturally, Budapest was one of those cities Churchill referred to in 1946 as being one of ‘the ancient capitals of Europe’ which were on the wrong side of the ‘Iron Curtain’. 1946 was actually the year in which Hungary entered the record books as the country which suffered the very worst hyper-inflation of all time, its price rises even dwarfing those of Germany in 1922-23. As with Germany, it was reparations which were at the heart of the problem, although this time the payments had to be made to the USSR. The inflation rate of 41 900 000 000 000 000% meant prices were doubling every 13 hours and the government issued the highest value note of all time, the 100 000 000 000 000 000 000 pengo; the numbers were written quite small so that they could fit on. These numbers are so big that they become meaningless but it’s still good to know such things.

By the end of the war, Admiral Horthy had, of course, been forced to pack up his rather extensive wardrobe and move off into exile, finally arriving in Portugal via an appearance at the Nuremberg trials and some time living in Germany. By 1948, Hungary’s transformation from Fascism to Communism was complete as it joined the other East European countries under Stalin’s rule. A brief period of apparent liberty for the Hungarians had ended with the arrival in power of the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Rákosi Mátyás. A revolutionary going back to the days which had seen Horthy come to power, Rákosi was a particularly nasty man who was a true disciple of Stalin. He was known to the Hungarian people as ‘Old Arse Head’, and only a photo will suffice to explain this rather unpleasant but accurate description; while one should not judge people on looks alone, you will probably find yourself in agreement with the people on this one.

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Rákosi Mátyás (1892-1971) (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Even though he is sort of smiling in this picture, don’t be fooled; Rákosi was a deeply unpleasant man who oversaw the removal of many innocent people through the work of the AVO, the secret police. Several hundred thousand people disappeared in purges between 1948 and 1956 as he earned one of his other nicknames, ‘The Bald Murderer’. The Communist Party dominated life in Hungary as Rákosi proved his loyalty, and lack of imagination, by closely following Stalin’s policies of the Thirties. Opposition voices were crushed as he sought to impose totalitarian rule but then it all came to a sudden halt in 1956, three years after the death of his hero in Moscow.

Rákosi joined the various other leaders of the USSR’s satellite nations in Moscow for the XXth Party Congress. In the closed session for which the congress became famous, he was seen to go pale as he listened to Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’. The implications of this astonishing attack on Stalin was a clear sign of changes to come, a message soon heard and understood by the people as well as the leaders. Rákosi quickly became a victim of the new era and he disappeared from power and, quite naturally, the people of Hungary believed a better life awaited them; change following such a tyrant had to be for the better. This belief was soon strengthened by events in Poland, where there was an uprising in October, 1956. A significant outcome of this was that, for the first time, the local Communist Party was allowed to choose its own leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka. Admittedly, they had to chose someone who was ‘acceptable’ to Moscow but even so, this was a sign of change and ‘relaxation’ under Khrushchev; he was not as controlling as Stalin. To the people and the politicians, it really looked as though Khrushchev was acting on his speech by allowing greater freedom in some areas of life. In Budapest, there was a sense of hope and determination in the population that wanted to make that change real but few could have expected where it would lead them. there would be blood on the streets and in the water as a consequence of what happened next.

The basic details of the events of October-November 1956, the so-called ‘Hungarian Uprising’ or ‘Hungarian Revolution’, are quite straight-forward. The uprising developed as a result of anger and frustration at life under Communist rule. Led by students in particular, there were protests and calls for greater freedom of speech, improved living conditions, and an end to the controls from Moscow and oppression by the state forces. In a crucial and symbolic act, the protesters took control of the radio station in Budapest. naturally, they met opposition from the AVO, the police and the army, both Hungarian and Soviet, with fighting and destruction on a significant scale. People cut the Communist symbols from the centre of the Hungarian flags and launched revenge attacks on the much-hated AVO; many were executed in public. There was violence on the streets as vigilantes used any weapons they could find against the official powers.

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The extraordinary anger of the common people flooded out in attacks against the AVO, the secret police, as this photo of a street execution shows. (Author: unknown, Source: here)

But then, to everyone’s relief, a peace descended as the Red Army and the Hungarian forces withdrew. Khrushchev was clearly going to act in a different way from that which Stalin would have. The people seem to have believed the reports that were coming from Radio Free Europe, an American backed station, which seemed to offer support to the rebels, suggesting that the people were not fighting alone but would have American and Western support. With their hopes raised so high, the people looked to establish even greater freedoms, choosing Imre Nagy (1897-1959), as the new Prime Minister. Nagy (pronounced ‘Narj’) was a far more moderate Communist than most politicians and was seen as a compromise candidate, a figure who might introduce change while still being acceptable to Moscow. He would later be called a hero but at the time Nagy lacked both awareness and courage, always seeming to be playing catch up with the people and misjudging the tone of the rebellion.

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Imre Nagy, the leading Communist who was chosen to be the figure-head of the Hungarian Uprising. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Inn the end, though, it did not really matter because, after a short respite, the Red Army returned in force, with support from the Warsaw Pact forces, and took a ruthless revenge. The casualties were high on both sides as the uprising was dramatically and decisively crushed. the huge statue of Joseph Stalin in Budapest might have been destroyed, and Stalin himself might have been criticised in Moscow, but Khrushchev was not soft, especially when he had the threat of his own destruction hanging over him from hard-liners in the Party and the Red Army. Over 2500 Hungarians died in the fighting between 23rd October and 10th November. Another 13 000 were injured and over 200 000 would flee the country soon after. 700 Communist soldiers died, some being shot by their own officers for refusing to attack civilians. Imre Nagy, the rather weak and unwilling leader of a ‘free’ Hungary, would later be executed, just one of the many to die. The ‘promised’ help from the West never came to the Hungarian people as US President Eisenhower was simply not prepared to risk a world war over a small Eastern Bloc country like Hungary. In addition to that, any hopes of gathering a Western alliance together to help Hungary were thrown into turmoil by the Suez Crisis which saw Britain, France and Israel make an unsuccessful attempt to impose their will in Egypt. Hungary was crushed. Thousands were dead, wounded or in prison. Fear, anger and a sense of betrayal were in many people’s hearts.

 

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Crowds gather around the giant statue of Stalin after it was pulled down in Budapest. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Considering the terrible state of affairs, it might seem strange but salvation of a kind was at hand for the Hungarian people. In the shadow of the greatest horror and suffering, a small sign of hope was to be found in a swimming pool 9 000 miles away  from Budapest. because, while there had been blood on the streets of Hungary, there was also to be blood in the water in Melbourne, Australia. Hungary has a great tradition of swimming. Outdoor pools are very common and many Hungarians are superb swimmers. They also have a great tradition of playing water polo, one of the toughest of all sports. Rather like handball but played in the water, teams of seven a side pass a ball to each other before attempting to score goals by throwing the ball into a net, like a small football goal. And like handball and basketball, it is supposed to be a game of no contact, a rule ignored by almost every team. Water polo is a tough game but it was never meant to be as violent as it got in 1956.

The Melbourne Olympics of 1956 were the first to be held in the northern winter months because Australia, of course, is in the southern hemisphere. This meant that it started just after the ‘Hungarian Uprising’ had ended in such a violent defeat for the ordinary people, the rebels of the country. The Hungarian water polo team travelled to Melbourne as one of the strongest contenders for the gold medal. But their journey to the games, and the competition itself, was over-shadowed by the events at home. The team made steady progress through the competition before reaching the semi-finals where they ended up facing the team from the Soviet Union. Traditionally, the two countries were great rivals but that took on a new level of enmity, thanks, of course, to the Moscow’s violent crushing of the revolution. The Hungarian team had been at a camp overlooking Budapest when the rebellion began. They had seen the smoke and heard the gun-fire before they were flown out to Australia. Reports of casualties and destruction had reached them so that they knew that in facing the Soviet Union they were doing more than playing a game; this was a rare opportunity for revenge, striking a blow for their friends and others who had fought and suffered at the hands of the AVO, the police and the tanks of the Red Army.

The match became the most famous in water polo’s history. It became known as the ‘Blood in the Water’ match, after violence erupted throughout the game. Players on both sides were kicked, bitten and punched but Hungary moved steadily ahead. They eventually won 4-0, refusing to show any respect to the team from the ‘senior’ country in Communism. Towards the end of the match, one of their star players, Ervin Zador (1935-2012), was punched so hard by his Soviet marker that he was cut above the eye. The crowd had been passionately involved in the match, as had both squads on the pool side, and this led to a riot. The referees, seeing that there was only a minute to play, abandoned the game, awarding the match to the Hungarians. Complaints were made by the Soviet team but to no avail; victory was given to the Hungarians who went on to take the gold medal by defeating Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final. But the real victory and the true glory rested on that semi-final victory. It was a triumph summed up in this famous photo of Zador.

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‘Blood in the water’, Ervin Zador in 1956. (Author: Corbis; Source: here)

After the tournament, many of the Hungarian team refused to return home, with some staying in Australia while others went to the USA. Ervin Zador himself went to the USA where he would stay involved with water polo and swimming. As a coach he looked after a promising young swimmer called Mark Spitz, the man who would go on to set an Olympic record in 1972 by winning seven gold medals in the pool at Munich. But he will always be remembered in Hungary for spilling his blood for the glory of his country against their greatest enemy, one small cut to set against the blood of thousands.

‘All I could think about was, ‘Could I play the next match?’’ Ervin Zador, Water-Polo player

 

Find out more

Films: ‘Children of Glory’ (DVD – Lions Gate Entertainment, 2008)

Books: ‘Twelve Days: Revolution 1956’ by Victor Sebestyen (Phoenix, 2007); ‘Nine Suitcases’ by Bela Szolt (Pimlico, 2005); ‘More Than a Game’ by Jan Stradling (Pier 9, Murdoch books Ltd, 2009)

 

 

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

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The Olimpiastadion, Berlin, 1936 – a place where important things happened. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

“Friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.” Jesse Owens

The Olympics in the modern era were the result of the vision and hard work of a French noble called Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937). He was at least partly inspired by the popular games which had been taking place in the small English village of Much Wenlock in Shropshire since 1850. This gathering, which is still held each year, aimed, “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”, an ideal which the Baron wanted to share on a far grander scale.

Baron de Coubertin was a regular visitor to Much Wenlock and he was much inspired by what he saw. After several years of planning, athletes gathered in Athens in 1896 for the first modern Olympic Games, the city being chosen, of course, because of the ancient games which had been held at Olympia from 776 BC to 393 BC. At those original games, winners received nothing more than a wreath of olive leaves, women were banned from competing and glory was all. There is no space here for a full history of the Olympics but some brief observations on a few key moments in recent history will hopefully show how fascinating and important the games have been in political as well as sporting terms.

The Baron himself: Pierre de Coubertin. He actually won a gold medal at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 – for poetry. They really did have a range of competitions in those days and he would probably have had a chance if they had held a bushy moustache competition.

(Author: Photograph from Bain News Service; Source: From the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division digital ID cph.3c22269)

1936 – BERLIN OLYMPICS

An obvious starting point for a discussion of politics in the Olympics is Berlin, 1936. For anyone visiting the city, the stadium there should be on the agenda: a Nazi building of beauty and importance, and the venue for one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time. The hero who dominated the Berlin Olympics of 1936 was an all-time great, namely the Black American star, Jesse Owens (1913-80). Owens’ life is a story which is truly worth knowing, not just for the fact that he won four gold medals in 1936, setting a record for athletics at one Olympics which was not matched until Carl Lewis at Los Angeles in 1984. (Some of you will mention Mark Spitz, who won seven golds in swimming at Munich in 1972 and Michael Phelps who went even further to win eight golds at Beijing in 2008, again in the pool. But four athletics golds is still a record for one Olympic Games). Owens’ achievements were remarkable in themselves but they have always had an extra dimension because of the context in which they happened. The place, the times, the opponents and the spectators all contributed to the glory of what he did.

Owens was a black athlete at a time when segregation was rife in the USA. Racism was the norm during much of his life at home but, by competing in Germany when the Nazis were in control, he faced one of the most racist systems in history. When he went to Berlin, Owens was already a legend of track and field having broken three world records and equalled a fourth, all within 45 minutes at a meeting in the state of Michigan, one afternoon in 1935. He was outstanding at the long jump and at sprinting, where he competed at 100m, 200m and in relays. However, at the time when his world records were set, he could not even get a scholarship because of his skin colour, having to work in part-time jobs to fund his athletics; many lesser athletes found such scholarships easy to come by.

Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics.

(Author: Unknown; Source: derivative work by Durova of Image:Jesse_Owens.jpg – reproduction of photograph in “Die Olympischen Spiele, 1936″ p.27, 1936.)

In 1936, Adolf Hitler was looking for a major propaganda victory at the Berlin Olympics. For the Nazis, the Olympics were a wonderful opportunity to show the world the glories of their system. Berlin had been awarded the games before Hitler came to power and he wanted to take every advantage he could from this opportunity. With the world in economic depression following the Great Crash of 1929, Germany would put on a show that would show it was stronger and more dynamic than any country in the world. It was to be not only a glorious event, but it would also show the superiority of the Aryan race as blond-haired, blue-eyed athletes from Germany were expected to dominate the Games. Indeed, Germany did finish top of the medals table, but they had far more athletes than anyone else and they had been supported in training to an extent no other team could match.

The Berlin Olympics saw several innovations, such as electronic timing, the Olympic Torch and the filming of the games. The film was made by one of the most important, famous and controversial film makers of all time, Leni Riefenstahl (pictured above during filming). She produced ‘Olympia’ using some dramatic new techniques of filming, creating a record of the games which is well worth watching today – as is her most famous film, the horrible and extraordinary ‘Triumph of the Will’.

(Author: Unknown, August, 1936; Source: German Federal Archives)

Hitler thoroughly expected success in the high-profile events, such as the 100 metres sprint, and this is where Jesse Owens achieved his greatest fame, winning gold in 103 seconds, an Olympic record – and remember there were no starting blocks and the track was ash. Hitler is alleged to have refused to meet Owens after he won the 100 metres and his other events but this is pretty much a myth. What is true is that Hitler had upset Olympic officials early on in the games by greeting only the German gold medallists. They told him to meet all or none in future and he settled for not meeting any, which included Owens. But there is no doubt that Hitler was appalled by Owens’ victories, at least according to his famous architect and confidante, Albert Speer.

Jesse Owens won gold medals in the 100m, 200m and the 100m relay, but it was in the long jump that sportsmanship really stood out. Owens was warming up before the heats and took a practise jump. Without warning, the officials classed this as his first jump. Furious and distracted, Owens fouled on his second jump and faced the prospect of elimination if he failed with his third jump. At this point, one of his German opponents, Carl ‘Luz’ Long, spoke to him and gave him some advice, telling him how good he was and that he could easily jump from well behind the board and still qualify. Owens took the advice, qualified and went on to win gold – leaving Long with the silver medal. Long was delighted and apparently very proud that he had helped Owens win through.

The photo below shows Luz Long and Jesse Owens at the Olympics. Long had actually approached Owens on their first day in the Berlin stadium. With Hitler and 100 000 spectators watching, Long shook Owens’ hand and chatted with him, a public display that went against the Nazi propaganda as they looked down on Owens as an ‘inferior’ person. Owens treasured their friendship, as the letter below shows.

Jesse Owens and Luz Long during the long-jump medal ceremony, 1936.

(Author: Unknown; Source: The original can be viewed here)

He wrote it to Owens in 1942, just after the United States declared war on Germany:

My heart is telling me that this is perhaps the last letter of my life. If that is so, I beg one thing from you. When the war is over, please go to Germany, find my son and tell him about his father. Tell him about the times when war did not separate us and tell him that things can be different between men in this world.

“Your brother, Luz.”

Luz Long died on July 13, 1943. He had been wounded in action, fighting for the German Army, and was treated at a British field hospital. He was only 30 and was buried in a war cemetery in Sicily. In 1951, Jesse Owens kept his promise and found Long’s son in Germany. He said that the thing he valued most from his Olympic experience was his friendship with Luz Long, more so even than the medals and fame he won.

Remarkably, rather than being able to return to the USA as a great hero, Owens suffered at the hands of the American establishment. He received no recognition from President Roosevelt, a major negative point against one of America’s most famous Presidents. Nor did his successor, Harry Truman, acknowledge Owens’ achievements in any way. On his way home from the Games, Owens took some paid employment as a way of funding his expenses for the Olympics. Avery Brundage, the head of the US delegation, made sure Owens was stripped of his amateur status for doing some advertising, and so his career was brought to an end just as he faced a period of greatness. Brundage was a seriously important, and most unpleasant, man in Olympic history and he comes up again later in this section. Ruined by his loss of amateur status, Owens was reduced to racing against horses as a gimmick to make a living, a tragic development in the life of a truly great athlete.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the story was that, straight after being greeted as a hero on the streets of Nazi Berlin after the Olympics, Jesse Owens returned to the USA to suffer continued racism. In New York, a reception was held in honour of the Olympic athletes at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Jesse Owens, the greatest champion of the Berlin Olympic Games, had to go upstairs in the lift used by the waiters because the lifts were segregated and the public lifts were for ‘whites only’. Nazi Germany was evil but the American system was hardly a beacon of justice and integrity.

Since Owens died in 1980, there has been some evidence to suggest that the above story is not entirely true. One American commentator, Grantland Rice, said he watched Owens through binoculars during the entire qualifying for the long jump competition. At no point did Owens have any contact with Long, according to Rice, making it impossible for Long to have given the famous advice. And in an article published in his local newspaper, a week after the long jump final, Long spoke of his joy and excitement at seeing Hitler applauding his fifth round jump which tied Owens at 7.67 metres. This is presented as evidence that Long was a loyal Nazi who was positive about Hitler, although one has to ask what else he was supposed to say in an age when devotion to Hitler was so widespread and so ‘expected’. In 1965, it was said that Owens admitted to ‘enhancing’ the story of his friendship with Long because it was what the people wanted to hear. In history, as in life, these difficulties over interpretation and truth often exist. Maybe the friendship and duel between Jesse Owens and Luz Long was not quite like the story that has been passed down over the decades. But so powerful is that story, that it is hard to see its power ever being diluted. The photos of them lying on the grass in the Olympic Stadium the evidence of Long running to hug and congratulate Owens after his final jump and the last letter Long wrote before his death in 1943 – they all stand as testimony to a remarkable friendship.

1956 – MELBOURNE OLYMPICS

The Melbourne Games were the first Olympics to be held after the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made his ‘Secret Speech’ in 1956. This speech, which is covered in more detail in the section on Khrushchev himself, had criticised Joseph Stalin, the hard-line Communist ruler of the USSR who had died in 1953. Khrushchev’s speech had sent shock waves around the world as it seemed to promise greater freedom and opportunity for those who lived in the Communist world behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. The Melbourne Olympics were, of course, in Australia and were, therefore, the first Games to be held in the southern hemisphere. They were not held in July-August but were moved to November-December, which meant they came just after the Hungarian Uprising (see Chapter 22) had been put down by troops of the Red Army and the Warsaw Pact. There had been huge loss of life and many people in Hungary had been deeply shaken by what had happened. The surprising scene for a symbolic Hungarian revenge would be the swimming pool in Melbourne, and, more specifically, the Olympic water polo tournament.

Hungary has a great tradition in swimming, having many outdoor pools and producing some fine swimmers over the years. The country has always been very strong in water polo, too, and. Hungary’s team made it to the semi-finals in Melbourne where there they had to face the team from the Soviet Union. Although the Hungarians actually had a stronger team, the Soviets considered themselves favourites, being from a much bigger country, and almost expected the Hungarians to collapse, respecting their superiority and power in the political world. Nothing could have been further from the truth and the match became the stuff of legend. The Hungarians won 4-0 but it is remembered not so much for its outcome as for the violence of the game and the blood that stained the pool by the end. One of the Hungarians, Ervin Zádor (1935-2012), left the pool with blood streaming from a cut eye after being punched by one of the USSR team. It became known as the ‘Blood in the water’ match and it was an iconic moment in sport, a great example of ‘David against Goliath’.

Ervin Zádor: Photo link

The Hungarians went on to beat the Yugoslav team 2-1 in the final and so win their fourth Water Polo Gold Medal. But the glory of victory could never make up for the horrors of the suffering in the Hungarian Uprising.

THE MEDALS TABLES AND DRUGS: 1948-1988

The Cold War officially saw no direct fighting between US and Soviet forces but tension and conflict was everywhere as each side aimed for superiority. In a dramatic move in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev had promised a change in Communism’s approach to the West. Under ‘peaceful coexistence’, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promised that the USSR would crush the USA by non-violent competition rather than by force. One example of this was to be the rise of athletics under Communism. By defeating Western athletes, the Communist system in the USSR and Eastern Europe would show itself to be a better way of life. ‘Better’ meant superior in attitude, tactics, diet and the like. In reality, it’s fair to say that a lot of it would also be down to professionalism and drugs. In the days before serious drug testing, almost anything could be used by athletes and, in this period, almost anything was. The most dramatic examples were seen in the power events for women where records set in the 1970s are well beyond anything achieved today. It was mainly down to huge injections of testosterone. It reached such levels in some women that they developed stubble and some have since had sex changes to become men. These athletes often suffered enormous horrors in the name of ‘peaceful coexistence’.

The Olympics became the focus of much attention and competition for the Superpowers from the 1950s onwards,. Whereas the Games had been dominated by the older Western powers and the host nations before World War II, the Superpowers came to prominence in the post-war period. The Medals tables shows this quite clearly:

Date and host city First (Gold medals) Second (Gold medals) Third (Gold medals)
1948 – London USA – 38 Sweden – 16 France – 10
1952 – Helsinki USA  – 40 USSR – 22 Hungary- 16
1956 – Melbourne USSR – 37 USA – 32 Australia – 13
1960 – Rome USSR – 43 USA – 34 Italy – 13
1964 – Tokyo USA – 36 USSR – 30 Japan – 16
1968 – Mexico USA – 45 USSR – 29 Japan – 11
1972 – Munich USSR – 50 USA – 33 East Germany – 20
1976 – Montreal USSR – 49 East Germany – 40 USA – 34
1980 – Moscow USSR – 80 East Germany – 47 Bulgaria – 8
1984 – Los Angeles USA – 83 Romania – 20 West Germany – 17
1988 – Seoul USSR – 55 East Germany – 37 USA – 36

 

There is so much to understand about the Olympics that they are a series of books on their own. But here it is worth noting just a few things.

Firstly, the medals table was won by either the USA or the USSR every time between 1948 and 2004. China broke that domination in 2008 and 2012. This is partly due to the fact that the USA and the USSR were large countries in terms of population and wealth but it really bears testimony to the fact that the Olympics became an event of great significance for both countries as the Cold War developed. For the USSR, under Khrushchev and Brezhnev in particular, sporting success was a way of showing the power of the nation and the Communist way of life. They could not really compete with the West in areas which demanded high levels of technology or established skills, such as motor racing, horse racing or golf, but they could develop in athletics, gymnastics and swimming. And, of course, the USA had to respond as leader of the ‘free world’ and the richest nation on earth.

Secondly, look at the rise of East Germany. With a population of only 18-20 million, just a third of the size of West Germany and with far less economic power, it came third in the world in 1972 and then second in 1976, 1980 and 1988. This represents extraordinary progress – with some serious drug abuse and an aggressive selection and training policy behind it.

Thirdly, there were a number of bans and boycotts which affected most of the Olympics between 1948 and 1984. Most of these were to do with the broader political situations of the time. Germany and Japan were banned from London in 1948 while the USSR refused to send a team. In 1956, the Melbourne Games saw seven teams absent because of the Suez Crisis (Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq), the Hungarian Revolution (Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands) and the situation in Taiwan/Formosa (the People’s Republic of China). In 1964, South Africa was banned because of its laws on apartheid, a ban which would last until 1992, while North Korea and Indonesia withdrew because of a dispute with the IOC. Munich in 1972 saw the absence of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the face of a threatened ban by African countries, as the country was led by a white-minority after it had declared independence from the UK. At Montreal in 1976, twenty-two African countries refused to compete, in protest at New Zealand playing South Africa at Rugby Union, while the People’s Republic of China continued its boycott over Taiwan. In 1980, the US team and many other Western countries abstained in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Next, the USSR and fourteen of its allies amongst the Communist countries boycotted the 1984 games in protest at the USA’s boycott of 1980 – and that led to Romania coming second as it was far stronger than most Western countries despite being relatively small. And, finally, North Korea surprised no one when they boycotted the Seoul Games of 1988 in a general protest against South Korea. In 1992, there was no formal boycott of the Olympic Games for the first time since Rome in 1960.

Lastly, a point about world records, especially in the women’s power events, as referred to above. Here is a list of a few records still on the books after quite a few years. Major progress has been made in so many other events while these have not been bettered. And so many are from those really successful countries: the USA, USSR and Communist Eastern Europe. Note that drug tests were stepped up after 1988. By any measure, this all looks rather fishy.

Events for women Athlete/country Date
High jump Stefka Kostadinova – Bulgaria 1987
Long Jump Galina Christyakova – USSR 1988
Shot Put Natalya Lisovskaya – USSR 1987
Discus Gabriele Reinsch – East Germany 1988
Heptathlon Jackie Joyner-Kersee – USA 1988
100m Florence Griffith-Joyner – USA 1988
100m hurdles Yordanka Donkova – Bulgaria 1988
200m Florence Griffith-Joyner – USA 1988
400m Marita Koch – East Germany 1985
800m Jarmila Kratochvilova – Czechoslovakia 1983

 

1968 – MEXICO OLYMPICS 

The Mexico Olympics took place at a time of great upheaval in the world and especially in the USA. It was during the Vietnam War and while the Civil Rights Movement was becoming increasingly violent. The year had already seen the assassinations of both the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, and the Democrat presidential candidate, Bobby Kennedy. A new figure had appeared in the Civil rights Movement: Stokeley Carmichael had become Chairman of SNCC (‘snick’ or the ‘Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’, a civil rights organisation which had moved towards supporting aggression) and was also ‘Honorary Prime Minister’ of the violent ‘Black Panther’ movement which advocated an aggressive approach to Civil Rights for Black Americans. In 1968, Carmichael was proclaiming ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black is beautiful’, while the Black Panthers, led in their actions by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, were challenging the police on the streets of the USA. In addition to these events, Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion, had been imprisoned for three years in 1967 for refusing to join the army and fight in Vietnam. There were huge racial tensions around that filtered through to the US Olympic team that travelled south for the Mexico games.

The 1968 Olympics had already seen traumatic events with the deaths of many people in riots before the games even began. However, despite this huge tragedy, the incident which came to make the Mexico Olympics famous actually happened after the 200 metres final. It was won by a black athlete, Tommie Smith (b. 1944) of the USA, in a world record time of 19.83 seconds, while a second black American sprinter, John Carlos (b. 1945), won the bronze. In silver medal position was an Australian, Peter Norman (1942-2006). At the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos decided to make a protest about Civil Rights in the USA. They each put on a single black glove. They wore no shoes and rolled their trousers up, a symbol of the poverty of slaves who had gone without shoes in the past. And rather than putting their hands on their hearts and singing the national anthem, as was normal for US athletes, they bowed their heads, refused to sing and raised their fists in the salute of the Black Power movement. To put it mildly, all hell broke loose, with condemnation coming from many different people in the USA and in the IOC (the International Olympic Committee).

The President of the IOC at this time was none other than our old friend Avery Brundage, the man who had blocked Jewish athletes from competing in the 1936 relay team. Based on his previous record, it came as no surprise when Brundage ordered that both Smith and Carlos be expelled from the US team and from the Olympic village. When the US officials refused, Brundage threatened to expel the whole US team, so they then complied. The hypocrisy of this was extraordinary: Brundage had been present in Berlin for the 1936 Games as president of the US Committee and had done nothing in response to competitors’ use of Nazi salutes, one of the most blatant political gestures ever at the Games. And he had done nothing to help Jesse Owens either, being the man who had stripped him of his amateur status after the Olympics. The whiff of racism hung heavily around the proceedings.

The Silent Gesture: photo link

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the Olympics. They faced an outcry when they returned to the USA and never competed for the USA, again although both went on to play American Football professionally. Tommie Smith later to become an athletics coach, teacher and civil rights activist while John Carlos faced major financial problems after his brief career in American Football ended, often having to burn chopped up furniture when the nights were cold; he later found employment as a school athletics coach in California.

Peter Norman, the Australian silver medallist, was a 26-year-old PE teacher and a Salvation Army officer, at the time. It was Norman who had suggested the Smith and Carlos should share their one pair of gloves after Carlos forgot his. In his desire to help in the protest, Norman had worn an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, like the two American sprinters. Norman came under huge pressure from the Australian media for joining in the protest but he simply said, “I believe that every man is born equal and should be treated that way.” When he died in 2006, John Carlos said, “Peter Norman was my brother.” Peter Norman remains a sports hero in Australia to this day.

In 2008, John Carlos and Tommie Smith received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for their raised fist salute. In 2010, Smith tried to distance himself from the ‘Black Power’ salute which had, he said, ‘Ruined my life’, by putting his gold medal and running spikes up for auction although it seems no one has yet reached the starting bid of $250 000.

Over forty years later and the gesture still carried meaning in terms of rewards and pain.

1972 – MUNICH OLYMPICS

Munich 1972 was remembered for wholly different reasons to those of the previous games. It was the darkest hour of the Olympics, as a terrorist group called ‘Black September’ stormed the Olympic Village, holding numerous members of the Israel team hostage. After days of tension, eleven Israeli athletes and coaches, one West German policeman and five of the eight terrorists lost their lives.

The 1970s were an age of terrorist violence which focused in part on hostage taking and the hijacking of planes. The attack on Israeli athletes in Munich was tied in to the bigger picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a situation has dominated affairs in the Middle East for decades. The organisation that carried out the attack, ‘Black September’, made demands for the release of 234 Palestinians and other prisoners held by the Israelis. The Israeli Government, led by Prime Minister Golda Meir, refused to negotiate and the tragedy developed. Having broken into the Olympic Village, the terrorists were able to take a group of Israeli athletes hostage in their accommodation at Block G 31, Connollystrasse in the Olympic Village.  Two members of the team were killed immediately with another nine being held hostage.

The incident ran from about 5am on 5th September in the Olympic Village to 4am the following day at Munich airport. In an apparent attempt to ensure a peaceful conclusion to the siege, the authorities agreed to fly the terrorists and their hostages out of the country, even though the deaths of some hostages had already occurred. But at the airport, the police and special services launched a desperate rescue attempt to free the hostages. It was chaotic and mismanaged. The attempt failed, leading to the deaths of the remainder of the hostages, a police officer and the five hostage takers.

Black September: photo link

The tragedy of this happening to Israeli athletes at the first Olympics held in Germany after World War II was clear. In the country which had seen the events of the Holocaust and the Nazis’ attempt to wipe the Jewish people from the face of the earth, these Israeli athletes suffered the worst terrorist attack in Olympic history.