Rings, Triangles and the Olympic Stadium, Munich


They say what goes around comes around. It has a meaning relating to whatever force or energy you release in the world, it will come back to make its claim on you. That generally has a negative tinge to it… but not always.

I’m slightly misleading you  as we aren’t quite about that here. But we are about things coming back at you in life if we look at the ring as a circle. That’s not even straight up either as we are also talking about the Olympic rings. At the centre of it all in this story lies the Olympic Stadium in Munich; for years the home of Bayern Munich.

So some of you might have worked out that the tale starts in late summer 1972. The 1972 Olympics burn particularly brightly with me. It would be five years later before colour TV reached our house but that hardly diminished my excitement though I was jealous of those friends of mine who did have such a luxury. I had gold, silver and bronze positions to fill my little Olympic booklet with and the cool graphics for every discipline had me on relentless TV duty. Going back to school was to be delayed due to some building work so I was hopeful of getting the full Olympic party from my sofa. Anyway, Alice Cooper was telling us all on the airwaves that ‘School’s Out’. It was the number one song at the time. That was good enough for me.

The opening ceremony was at the Olympic stadium in Munich and in 1972 this looked like some futuristic outer world arena. I was right in there absorbing it all. I followed it religiously and exhausted my father getting him to neatly record every medal, name and time in said booklet when he came home from work. Mark Spitz and Olga Korbut dominated that first week in the baths and on the beam.

I watched Valeriy Borzov win the sprints. I tuned in to see if David Hemery could repeat his 1968 400m hurdles gold and watched Mary Peters eventually win gold against Heide Rosendahl in the pentathlon. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief as Britain’s great long-distance hopes Brendan Foster and David Bedford were eclipsed by the Finn Lasse Viren, who came out of the Scandinavian woods to win both five and ten thousand metre events.

Already entranced by the Mexican World Cup in 1970 this was my second big TV event. As the previous Olympics had been held in Mexico it was a surprise to me to see something being held in Germany as up to then I thought everything was held in Mexico. Just to compound this idea further, Germany were then to hold the World Cup in 1974.

It was all great. But it wasn’t of course. Midway through the games Israeli participants were taken hostage and were eventually to die. The world watched on in this tense stand-off as the ‘Black September’ group held the athletes and the Olympics to ransom. In my little mind, I thought they were something to with the fact that we were now in September. The camera view of the village where they were being held will remain one of my abiding childhood images. For what seemed much longer than it was (20 hours) David Coleman departed from his sports commentating to give us minute by minute briefings. The TV picture of that accommodation never moved. No different angles. Nothing. Just cut-glass tension.

We saw fleeting glimpses of the terrorists on the balcony. It was like a bolt of lightning as a balaclava head and frame broke up the (up to then) still images of the jutting, linear architecture that had transfixed us. Instead of Olympic Rings, the blue triangles of the Israeli flag were now the defining shapes of that Olympiad. It all didn’t end well of course as 11 Israelis died and the Olympics were suspended for a day. It remains a dark stain on Olympic history.

Two years on and as mentioned we were all back in the Olympic Stadium in the 1974 World Cup. There were several matches there but of course, it was seen in all its daylight glory in the final on that first Sunday of July. Gerd Muller, that diminutive dum-dum bullet was released once again from West Germany’s chamber to plunder the Dutch polders. Franz Beckenbauer held the World Cup high in the north Munich stadium for the world to see.

The ground would keep popping up every now and again in my life. Five years later, of course, Nottingham Forest would beat Malmo to win their first European Cup. Trevor Francis’ scrambled dive into what looked like the old shot-putt circle as he scored took me back seven years.

Oddly enough, for a place that had a hold on my seventies’ head I actually ended up on a day trip to Munich from Austria in the summer of 1986. Part of the trip involved an hour or so around the old Olympic park which if I remember seemed to either double as or had become an amusement park. I do recall being at the top of some construction and seeing the Olympic stadium about a kilometre away. For some reason, all my thoughts about the previous decade did not seem to permeate. I went back to Austria unconcerned that I hadn’t delved deeper.

The 1997 Champions’ League final held there and won by Dortmund didn’t resonate either but I do remember England’s 5-1 victory of 2001 over Germany. Perhaps camera work had improved or more likely the game was replayed over and over but the footage reawakened something in me from almost thirty years ago.

The circle was eventually to be completed in a shuddering fashion. In Munich on business in November 2009 I had time to go round the BMW museum which some of you may know lies beside the Olympic Park. I found myself after a bit of a walk looking down at the now redundant Olympic stadium. Bayern and 1860 Munich, of course, had debunked to the Allianz Arena.

I thought of Viren, Beckenbauer, Clough and Owen who all had their moments of glory there. It looked exactly as it had through all those TV highpoints. I climbed through the decades in memory. I turned around and then was hit with a thudding visual jolt. Right in front of me was the old Olympic village. Right there was that image of 5 September 1972 that that had been branded onto our minds all those years ago. It was like that Chief Brody moment in ‘Jaws’ where the camera skids to a halt inches in front of his face as he witnesses the shark attack in front of him.

I stood transfixed as I was dragged back 37 years. I was in the exact same camera position of that day. I simply wasn’t aware of exactly where I was in literal or figurative time and space. The speed of it knocked the breath out of me. You can imagine I stood there for some time computing the fact that the top of the football ground led onto that massive 20th Century moment. Olympic Rings and Israeli triangles suddenly were linked by that football ground that periodically appeared in my life.

It was a sobering experience, no doubt amplified by my initial reception of it all being at such tender years. Three years later in Tel Aviv, I visited Israel’s own Olympic museum where the story of 1972 was understandably, very much the centrepiece of it all. A square was probably circled for me but I long considered how Munich’s Olympic stadium had moved around me in such a fashion for all those years.