I finished my first three years in Bavaria just as the 1972 Olympic Games were to begin in Munich. By then, the city was changing vigorously from traditional to modern, thanks to money that flowed relatively freely as part of the city’s Olympics effort.
Munich’s Olympic Park was built northeast of the city center on rubble trucked out of the city after WWII bombings. Floating, transparent tent-roofs of Plexiglas and steel grace the stadium, Olympic hall and swimming pool. They are the heart of the grounds.
The games were designed to show the world a “friendly face” after the 1936 Nazi games and and a generation after WWII and the Holocaust.
The 955-foot Olympic Tower, with its observation deck and restaurant revolving below, is one of the tallest buildings in Europe.
A two-year, $50 million tower renovation was to start in June. The tower was not originally residential. But after renovation, apartments are to be added.
The architect of the “tent-scape” stadium later said he wasn’t sure whether it could actually be built. Only with that background of optimism can you understand how those hopes came crashing down with the Black September attack at the Games, in which 11 Jewish athletes were kidnapped in the capital of the Nazi movement and killed.
Ever since, the park and the memories have been, the mayor said, a balancing act between celebration and commemoration.
The grainy iconic 1972 photo by Kurt Strumpf became one of Time Magazine’s 100 photos that changed the world. I know my world was never the same. Today, when I think of the Munich Olympics, I still think of the terrorist in the stocking mask more often than swimmer Mark Spitz or gymnast Olga Korbut.
Connollystraße (Connolly Street) was named for an Irish-American participant in the 1896 Olympics. The 1972 massacre started before dawn Sept. 5 with the seizing of Israeli hostages in apartment block 31. For the first time, around the world, people watched on TV screens as a terror horror unfolded.
West German police attempted to rescue the hostages and all nine Israelis were killed, as well as five of eight terrorists and a German police officer. In a move regarded by many Germans as shameful, the games were resumed 24 hours after the attack ended. Today, a plaque marks the spot that became the center of the news world for a few hours.
German authorities at multiple levels were widely blamed for poor execution of the rescue attempt. In 2023, 50 years later, an eight-person international commission was appointed to investigate.
In 2017, a $2.5 million, open-air memorial to the victims was cut into a hillside in the park. The memorial is called “Einschnitt” (incision). Incision into Linden Hill and an incision into history, when terror went primarily public.
The assassination timeline plays on an LED wall. The victims’ bios are shown in the center.
Before the Einschnitt, for 45 years, the only memorial in park was a long stone slab on which the names of the Israeli victims were carved. The Klagebalkan (wailing beam) is just in front of the Olympic Tent and almost looks like part of the foundation. You could pass right by, if you weren’t looking for it.
Ghost train station
Over dirt paths, it’s three-quarters of a mile from the stone memorial to an overgrown abandoned train station, the so-called “Geisterbahnhof” (ghost train station).
In 1972, the number of passengers going to the games each day exceeded 430,000, compared to a forecast of 240,000. At peak times, trains carried tens of thousands of people every hour. After the games, the line was used only on special occasions.
Closed in 1988, the ghost train station has since been a backdrop for photographers or a place for young people to party and grill. The city bought the station from the railroad and wants to create a recreational area there, integrating the old rail line into the bike path network.
The buildings and facilities that housed the athletes were designed to live on after the Games. Originally bemoaned as a “rigidly concrete desert,” the apartment complexes were threaded by greenery that sprang up during the years afterward. The terraced homes, bungalows and row houses guaranteed diverse residents.
Today, the Olympic Village is a model for modern forms of residential construction and urban planning. Three arms of the complex extend mostly southwest and meet at the village center. Their 3,100 units provide housing for 10,000 people.
Vehicle and pedestrian traffic run on separate levels. The former male section is a residential neighborhood, and the former female section serves as college-student housing. In summer 2022, renovation of the student section was completed after 15 years at a cost of $150 million.
BMW headquarters, the four-tower building the Germans call “the four-cylinder,” is 50 years old, too. The exterior of the towers was finished in time for the 1972 summer Olympics. The towers joined the tent-roof silhouette of the Olympic Hall in giving Munich a memorable new look.
The “four cylinder” was said to be reminiscent of the power source inside BMW cars, and the HQ was built at the site of major BMW manufacturing. But that’s changing. Starting next year, no more cars with gasoline engines will be built there. By 2030, every BMW is to be electric — and without cylinders.
Incidentally, BMW was fined roughly half a million in today’s dollars for putting its circular blue-and-white logo on the building when it went up just before the Olympics. A local planning committee had decided the logo would be “too striking.”
But on the west side, it could be seen from the Olympic stadium. The company paid. Probably charged the fine to marketing.
One of the Olympic park features still available is the Flying Fox. You get tethered to the steel catwalk along the top of the stadium and and walk around the top edge, then take a zip line back down to the other side.
I was even more miserable than I look. It rained harder that day than during any storm I was ever caught in, but I was on a break from school and there was no postponing.
My guide, Philip, was a university student on a part-time job. Despite driving rain, he and I climbed the steel ladder and started along the catwalk. Nobody else was nuts enough to join us that water-soaked day.
Philip and I were tethered to the catwalk. I guess it was heart-warming to know that if we fell, we wouldn’t plunge all the way to the ground.
You can’t see the zip line in the photo. We walked along the roof to that stack of lights at top right. From there, we hooked up to the zip line and jumped into the void. We landed among the bleacher seats on the other side of the stadium.
One of Philip’s jobs was to talk about the history of the Olympic site. His plan changed when he discovered that his only customer had been there at the beginning.
World Heritage candidate
With the exception of the demolished cycling stadium, now the rebuilt home to Munich’s pro hockey and basketball teams, all the sport facilities are still there. The car-free urban oasis with grass — not harsh cobblestone — to walk on and flowers to pick has won a reputation as the world’s best publicly used former Olympic site and is a candidate to be named a World Heritage site.
After five decades, features such as the famous text roof are corroding, and the renovation estimate — sure to be exceeded — is half a billion euros. Nonetheless, city officials are debating whether to join a couple of other German cities in applying to play host to the 2036 summer games, 100 years after the terror.
A final more somber note. The Olympic Stadium and the newly renovated Olympic Hall are becoming less attractive as event sites. The event industry is always looking for something new, and events are becoming more technically demanding. The Olympic Hall may be too small, and logistical and structural weaknesses prevent it from offering exclusive box seats.
Now investors want to build a multi-functional arena for 20,000 at the airport, which will offer box seats and comfort. Most inconvenient of all, the Olympic Park is on the list of protected historical sites, and strict regulations make change very difficult. The city owns the park, but no one there today seems to see 50 more years for the Olympic site as we know it.
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