How risky the Munich games were

Franz Beckenbauer really got into raptures: “Actually, you should only enter this stadium in tails and top hat.” On May 26, 1972, the Munich Olympic Stadium was officially opened with an international football match between Germany and the USSR, and on June 28, 1972 FC Bayern played their first of 751 home games there; the 5:1 against Schalke 04 meant the third German championship title. In both games, Beckenbauer played as a player. And all around the stands were full.

So full that local newspapers and many visitors grumbled about the crowds. The organizers of the upcoming Olympic Games were not at all comfortable with it. At least those who should ensure safe processes in the Olympic venues. Above all Wolfgang Hegels.

Hegels is 83 years old today. At that time, the doctor of law headed the department in the Organizing Committee of the Games (OK), which was responsible for the support and security service. When Hegels remembers Munich 1972, it’s not just about the cheerful games and the terrible assassination. But also of the fear of an impending catastrophe, “which could only be avoided with a lot of luck,” as Hegels says today.

What the public didn’t know about at the time and since then: “The Olympic Stadium and the swimming pool in particular were dangerously overcrowded,” says Hegels. Previously confidential documents available to the SZ reveal outrageous and quite life-threatening conditions – a scenario that inevitably brings to mind the accident at the Loveparade 2010 in Duisburg.

“A few thousand more people in the stadium than should have been there”

Inspectors from the city of Munich sounded the alarm several times during the Olympic Games. In their internal deployment reports, they sometimes described chaotic conditions. There is talk of overcrowded standing and seating areas, of entrances and escape routes blocked by crowds of people. “In the event of an incident, everything could have resulted in an uncontrollable mass panic,” says Hegels. “The escape routes often couldn’t be kept clear. There were times when there were a few thousand more people in the stadium than should have been there.”

Originally planned for 80,000 spectators, the Olympic Stadium actually only had room for a maximum of 75,000 people, according to Hegels. The Olympic organizers had printed and sold far more tickets – especially for standing room – than there were places. In addition, many visitors who only had tickets for the morning for athletics, for example, did not leave the stadium but also watched in the afternoon without a ticket. Nobody prevented them from staying in the corridors and toilets for so long. Another factor: Some smuggled people into the stadium, such as a supplier of the aid stations.

Olympia 1972: At the closing ceremony, even people without a ticket could enter the stadium. The staff there was overwhelmed and at the end of their nerves.

At the closing ceremony, even people without a ticket could enter the stadium. The staff there was overwhelmed and at the end of their nerves.

(Photo: Baumann/imago)

“We often estimated internally that there were up to 90,000 people in the stadium,” recalls former department head Hegels. “We couldn’t intervene anymore. Once the people are in the stadium, it’s too late.” In the event of panic, the mass of people would no longer have been controllable. Loudspeaker announcements, but at least keeping the entrances and exits to the stands and thus the escape routes clear, almost always fizzled out without effect.

And another grievance contributed significantly to the overcrowding. “Far too many special passes had been issued,” says Hegels. To hostesses, for example, to Bundeswehr soldiers who were deployed as drivers, or to other helpers who would be called volunteers today. If there were attractive competitions and they had time, they also flocked to the arenas, some of which were already sold out. And nobody stopped her.

Hegels wrote to OC General Secretary Hermann Reichart after the two football games, ten days before the Olympic opening ceremony. “Approximately 7,000 to 8,000 people” have work IDs “that give them access to all Olympic sports facilities in all areas,” Hegels wrote. The smooth process in terms of security can only be guaranteed “if at least the vast majority of work ID card holders can be given the insight that the misuse of ID cards under the special conditions of the Munich games can lead to a real threat to events”.

Special passes were happily exchanged or even forged

The insight did not really come, and at a crisis meeting five days before the opening ceremony, it also came out that the special passes had apparently been tricked and manipulated. Forgeries were in circulation, some without photographs. Under the hand there was a lively exchange. The OC then urged the inspectors at the entrances and the stewards in the halls to take action. Again, this only worked to a limited extent.

Employees of the municipal public order office were horrified “that members of the public order service failed to do the necessary work,” according to a report dated August 29. Others were simply overwhelmed – or gave up in the face of the onslaught. The hostesses, in particular, who still symbolize the cheerful games to this day, became a problem. The city inspectors complained that it was “incomprehensible” that a large number of them were blocking the entrances and exits.

How serious the concerns of the law enforcement officers were can also be seen today from the things they usually deal with. On the play street in the Olympic Park, they criticized the fact that a dealer offered “clear replica penises” for sale. At a performance in the Theatron, they soberly noted that two men disguised as “riderless zebras” “indicate a sexual act”. Her observation reads irritated that “the performances” were “repeatedly laughed at and applauded” by a diverse audience (“a few children too”).

Olympia 1972: "The swimming stadium was overcrowded during the finals in the evening", noted the inspectors.

“The swimming stadium was overcrowded during the finals in the evening,” noted the inspectors.

(Photo: Baumann/imago)

Meanwhile, the swimming stadium has developed into the most dangerous overcrowding hotspot. Especially when the US superstar and seven-time gold medalist Mark Spitz started, there were tumultuous scenes. On August 28, for example, the day Spitz first won gold in the 200-meter butterfly and then also in the American 4×100-meter freestyle relay. “The swimming stadium was overcrowded during the finals in the evening,” the inspectors noted the following day. In addition, around 100 spectators “climbed up the struts on the outer wall and followed what was happening in the hall from there”. Loudspeaker warnings were unsuccessful. As a countermeasure, the law enforcement officers wrote, “possibly the complete covering of the glass walls of the hall from the inside could be considered”.

On August 29th and 30th – Mark Spitz was swimming again – the situation escalated: “All the iron girders that could be reached were crowded with people,” the inspectors recorded. The OC took unusual, but ultimately also unsuccessful, measures to keep the uninvited spectators away from the hall roof. “The attempt to prevent climbing by using soft soap failed,” reads a memo.

The rush was particularly dramatic at the closing ceremony. The job card system “completely collapsed,” according to the city inspectors. Even people without a ticket were able to enter the stadium. The staff there was overwhelmed and at the end of their nerves. “Individual employees of the control service were no longer able to answer the simplest questions,” the officials noted.

At the closing ceremony, Wolfgang Hegel’s fear of panic was particularly justified, as we now know. For a short time that evening, September 11, 1972, the organizers had to assume that an unknown flying object was approaching the stadium – and that terrorists might be planning an attack on the arena using the machine as a flying bomb. The crisis team headed by Minister Georg Leber had already met in the Ministry of Defense in Bonn, two Bundeswehr interceptors had taken to the air – and then the relieving news came that it was a Finnish passenger plane with a broken radar.

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