Interview with Olivia Kroth “Memories of the Summer Olympics 1972 in Munich, Germany”
The Olympics are an extraordinary experience. What motivated you to participate as an aide?
I had finished my studies at the University of Heidelberg and passed the first state exam successfully, to become a teacher for German and English language and literature at the Gymnasium. However, I felt that it was not the time yet to go back to school so soon. I was just 23 and wanted to do something else. I wished to participate in international events, to meet foreign people, to travel ….
When I read a notice at the billboard in my University that the Olympic Organizing Committee was looking for female students of foreign languages to help as hostesses at the Olympics 1972 in Munich, I thought this was just the right thing for me. I applied and got accepted.
Olympic Park in Munich, 1972:
The Olympic Games are attended by renowned great figures. You remember them? What teachings did those people leave you?
Actually, the greatest figures for me were two ladies that I met in Munich. They were both members of the Organizing Committee and held the first interview with me, when I applied. Later I saw them again at different stages of my training. We were 1.600 hostesses, all in all, and we underwent intensive training to be prepared for our work at the Olympics.
The first lady that really impressed me was Dr. Emmy Schwabe from Innsbruck in Austria. She was the head of the hostess service and told us what was expected from us. She was assisted by Silvia Sommerlath, who was six years older than me. We were both born in Heidelberg. Silvia had German and Brazilian roots, while I had German and Russian roots. Probably our mixed heritage helped us to be open for new experiences, meeting foreigners, speaking foreign languages. Silvia had studied to become an interpreter and spoke six languages fluently.
Dr. Emmy Schwabe and Silvia Sommerlath headed the 1972 Summer Olympics hostesses service in Munich, Germany:
During the Olympic Games, she met Crown Prince Carl Gustaf of Sweden. Their relationship was kept secret. After the death of his father, the Swedish King Gustav VI Adolf, on the 15th of September 1973, Carl XVI Gustaf succeeded to the throne. In 1976, he married Silvia Sommerlath, who became Queen of Sweden and later mother of the heir apparent to the throne, Crown Princess Victoria. In 2011, Silvia became the longest-serving Queen of Sweden, a record previously held by Sophia of Nassau.
I was always looking for female role models in my life. These were two of them: Dr. Emmy Schwabe, the tough and strict head mistress with plenty of know-how, and the charming, competent Silvia Sommerlath, who rose high in society to become a Queen. Being strict, tough, competent, charming, ambitious – those are some of my characteristic traits as well. Probably they are in my genes, I have been born with them. Furthermore, I consciously trained this style of life, and the role models have helped me a lot.
Silvia Sommerlath married Crown Prince Carl Gustav of Sweden, in 1976:
The third person I remember very well was a German girl, who had come to work in Munich from the USA. She was working as a purserette (chief stewardess) for Panamerican Airways and was based in New York City. I do not remember her last name, her first name was Christa. She spotted me in the crowd, came up to me, showed me photos of her work and asked if I would like to join Panmerican Airways. I answered, “Why not?” It was my dream to travel around the world. This was a chance of fulfilling my dream.
Christa and some managers of the airline held interviews in the lobby of a Munich hotel for interested applicants, during the Summer Olympics 1972. I filled out the application forms Christa had given me and went to the interview. A week later, Christa told me that I had been accepted and would soon receive a special working permit for the USA. I should prepare to fly to Miami, where the Panamerican headquarters for stewardess training was located. I would have to participate in a six weeks training course. Now this was excellent news. I jumped for joy.
What were your functions at the Summer Olympics?
Meanwhile I underwent an intensive training course in Munich to get prepared for the Olympics. I had to learn details about the city of Munich, the Olympic venues, Olympic sports and the history of the Olympic Games in general. I worked at the information office for visitors, answering their questions and helping them to find their way around. This was not so easy, since the Olympic Park was huge.
I remember wearing the “Dirndl” in turquoise and white. It was our uniform during the Olympic Games. Dr. Emmy Schwabe wanted us all to look like typical Bavarian girls, although most of us were not Bavarian at all. There were hostesses from all continents, even Chinese and African girls participated.
The “Dirndl” is a folk costume, a traditional dress for women and girls in the Bavarian and Austrian Alps. It has a tight bodice with rectangular neckline, a wide high-waisted skirt and an apron. In addition, we wore a jacket on top, white knee socks and white shoes.
Olympic hostesses in “Dirndl” costumes:
Is there a story you would like to tell about the Olympics in Munich?
The Olympics helped me to acquire a taste for architecture. For me, the beauty of modern architecture at the Olympic Park was overwhelming. Many visitors told me that they also were very impressed. The most brilliant thing in the Olympic Park was the large tent roof of 75.000 square metres and its embedding in the landscape. The Olympic Stadium, the Olympic Hall and the Olympic Swimming Pool were located under this transparent roof, covered with translucent plexiglass.
The very light-looking tent roof was considered an optical and static sensation. Originally, the construction was to be dismantled after the Olympic Games. However, the echo of the world press, which saw the character of the light games best reflected in this tent roof, prevented its dismantling. The famous tent roof was completely renovated at the end of the 1990s, to restore its translucent impression.
Olympic tent roof in Munich:
You were very young at that time. How did you develop in that environment?
I enjoyed living and working in Munich very much. To be in the middle of this important event was most exciting. All of us hostesses lived in a block of the sports park, so we saw the sportspeople coming and going every day. In my free time, I went to the city centre which I did not know well at that time. I walked through parks and shopping malls. I sat in cafés and watched the crowds passing.
My favourite park in Munich is the Nymphenburg Palace Park. I foster a passion for garden architecture, especially of formal gardens on a grand scale. This exquisite Palace Park is considered a masterpiece of garden design. It comprises two types of gardens : a formal French garden and an English landscape garden.
The designs of the formal Baroque garden in Nymphenburg were modeled on the French garden at Versailles. The work on the spacious landscape park based on the English model began in 1804. I love the synthesis of these two fundamentally different garden types. The orderly French Baroque garden maintains the idea to enhance nature by art and order. The English landscape park highlights the free play of nature.
Apollo Temple in the English landscape garden of Nymphenburg Palace Park:
I also traveled to the Regatta Course in Oberschleißheim near München, to see some of the rowing events. This rowing venue was built for the rowing and canoeing competitions of the 1972 Summer Olympics. The course is two kilometres long. It has capacity for 9.500 spectators.
I love to watch rowing since my times as a student in Heidelberg, on the Neckar River. Students of the university were rowing each day on the Neckar. I used to sit on a bench at the shore and observe the light boats gliding by. It all seemed so effortless, and yet rowing is a tough sport. The shoulders and arms develop very strong muscles. I have never rowed myself but I like this water sport very much.
Olympic Regatta Course in Oberschleißheim near Munich:
Athletes broke records. What lesson did men and women capable of doing extraordinary things let you know?
Since I have Russian roots, I was very happy that my compatriots did so well in Munich. The rowing and canoeing events took place at the Regatta Course in Oberschleißheim. I could not watch all of them because I was busy working at my information stand. When I heard that the Soviet sportspeople had won eight gold medals in rowing and canoeing, it made me very happy.
I did not get a chance of meeting any of these Soviet gold champions in person. Looking back at the events, I am very proud that the Soviets did so well. Yury Malyshev won gold in men’s single sculls. Gennadi Korshikov and Alexander Timoshinin won gold in men’s double sculls.
Soviet gold medalist rowers at the 1972 Olympics in Munich:
The Soviets were also successful in canoeing. Alexander Shaparenko won gold in men’s kayak singles (1000 m). Yulia Ryabchynskaya won gold in women’s kayak singles (500 m). Nikolai Gorbachev and Victor Kratasyuk won gold in men’s kayak pairs (1000 m). Yekaterina Kuryshko and Lyudmila Pinayeva-Khedosyuk won gold in women’s kayak pairs (500 m). Vladas Cesiunas and Yury Lobanov won gold in men’s Canadian pairs (1000 m). Yury Stetsenko, Valery Didenko, Yury Filatov and Vladimir Morozov won gold in men’s kayak fours.
What lessons are there to learn? Firstly, Olympic sports requires dedication. The Soviet athletes dedicated all their time to training. Secondly, it is known that the Soviet training camps were excellent and extremely tough. Good health and a very healthy lifestyle were certainly required to survive them. Although I am not an athlete, a healthy lifestyle has served me well, too.
Soviet kayak gold medal winner Yulia Ryabchynskaya:
Thirdly, I have learned that even the best athletes can die young, as did the kayak gold medal winner Yulia Ryabchynskaya. Only four months after her victory in Munich, she died when she fell into icy cold water during a training session back home in the Soviet Union. I suppose, we all have our fate. There is a German saying, “Der Mensch denkt, Gott lenkt”. – Human beings think and plan but God decides what will become of us.
Unfortunately, the Munich Olympics were marked by a tragic event. Do you remember?
Yes, I remember what happened. On the other hand, I remember no details at all. It is as if a dense fog had enveloped the brains in my head. I was so shocked that I could not think clearly at all. I went around like a zombie. Only bits and pieces of the tragic shooting reached us hostesses immediately after it happened. One day later, of course, we could read in the press about the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes by terrorists from Palestine.
In the news, we were informed that in the early morning of September 5, a group of Palestinian terrorists had stormed the apartment of Israeli athletes in the Olympic village, killing two and taking nine others hostage. The terrorists were part of a group known as Black September. In return for the release of the hostages, they demanded that Israel should release over 230 Arab prisoners, being held in Israeli jails, and two German terrorists. In an ensuing shootout at the Munich airport, the nine Israeli hostages were killed, along with five terrorists and one German policeman.
The Munich Olympic Massacre 1972:
Afterwards, Olympic competitions were suspended for 24 hours, to hold memorial services for the slain athletes. I remember that the Organizing Committee discussed, whether the entire Games should be stopped. However, the majority voted for continuing. They did not want the terrorists to have the last word. So the Games went on.
The closing ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Munich, which had begun on such a light and pleasant note, must have been gloomy and sad. I cannot remember going there. I think, I did not attend. I believe, I left Munich a day or two early. I went back home to pack my bags and flew to Miami, where Panamerican Airways started training for stewardesses, in fall. I had been accepted and began the next phase of my young life.
Did the Olympics influence your life?
The Olympics certainly influenced my life decisively. They showed me that it is very important to work hard to reach the goals you have set for yourself. The famous sportspeople who won gold medals had to train very hard and long. Talent is not enough. Endurance, continuous exercise and a strong will to succeed are equally important.
Furthermore, you need to stay focused. No distractions are allowed. The sportspeople in Munich who won gold medals did not go out. They were not seen dancing away in night clubs. They stayed focussed on preparing for the major sports events in their lives.
I also learned that it is important to recognize your own talent and develop it. Nobody is multi-talented. Just like the Olympic winners have one sport, in which they excel, we all have one side, one ability, one facet of our character that needs to be recognized and trained. For me, this was and remains writing. I keep writing and publishing articles and books. The more I write, the more I love it. It has become my first priority in life.
My first book, published in 2001, by Societäts-Verlag in Frankfurt am Main:
Furthermore, I have learned that life can be very short, if you are in the wrong place, at the wrong time. What if I had been in the Israeli apartment and had been shot dead by terrorists? I was not a political thinker, at the age of 23. I was a happy girl, loving life. I still love life today, at the age of 71.
However, thoughts of mortality creep into my thoughts often, when I write my articles about politics. Then I wonder, why the massacre of 1972 at the Olympics in Munich has not led to some sort of insight yet. In 2020, nearly 50 years later, we read daily in the news of some shooting back and forth between Palestine and Israel. Half a century has passed but the Israelis and Palestinians are still fighting over territorial rights. I think that after half a century, people could have acquired the wisdom to calm down.
Last but not least, I have learned from my experience at the Summer Olympics 1972 that terroristic activities will never lead to peace. I regret immensely that until this very day, Israelis and Palestinians still have not made their peace with each other. I believe that with good will from both sides, some sort of compromise could be achieved, to stop the never-ending bloodshed, pain and sorrow.
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Russia.