Forty-four years after the Munich massacre, the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics were finally commemorated in an official International Olympic Committee ceremony last Thursday at the Rio Games. The ceremony was held at a memorial site in the Olympic Village. Called the Place of Mourning, the site honors the memory of the Israelis as well as four other people who were killed at Olympic Games. The others are the German policeman who was killed in a failed rescue attempt in Munich; two victims of a bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and a Georgian athlete who died in an accident at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano (who has relatives in Montreal), widows of two of the murdered Israeli athletes, had been campaigning for years to have the Israelis officially commemorated. They were unsuccessful until Thomas Bach, of Germany, became IOC president in September 2013.A “moment of reflection” for the Munich 11 will be held during the Games’ closing ceremony on Aug. 21.
In addition to the IOC commemorations, an Aug. 14 ceremony for the Israeli 11 at Rio City Hall was highlighted by Spitzer and Romano lighting 11 candles. Officials from the Israeli Olympic Committee and the Israeli Consulate led the commemoration. Forty-four years later. Not 40, but 44. Several things should bother you as much as they do me.
At the 1972 Games, American Avery Brundage - the then President of the IOC and the man who in 1936 fought any suggestion of boycotting Hitler's Olympics - refused to consider any suspension of Munich with the infamous statement, "The Games must go on." He was harshly criticized in some quarters. But not from within the Olympic movement. Brundage had been an apologist for Hitler in the 1930s and his antipathy toward Israel was laid bare in 1972. He resigned as President right after the '72 Games. He then married a German Princess and died in Germany three years later. It is ironic that it took a German IOC President to finally have this commemoration done.
The killings of the Israeli athletes was a singularly unique tragedy in Olympic history. I believe it was shameful that even when finally remembered, the IOC had to have some politically correct cover by including all Olympic related deaths. The 1996 Atlanta bombing was committed by a deranged man who was opposed to abortion on demand in the United States. The 1972 attack was a hate crime driven by bloodlust against Jews. There should not have been even the perception of equivalency at the Rio commemoration.
Finally, some acknowledgement should have been made by the IOC at the Rio commemoration for the mean-spirited refusal to have the commemoration at the 40th anniversary of Munich at the 2012 London Games.
The argument for sports, and for funding sports, is that it builds character. That it is a question of national pride. Well, boys and girls playing games is not in and of itself character building. Not unless those young people are infused with examples of character, conscience and courage when life rises up and throws its brutishness into their faces. They should not be given Brundage's example that the games they play are more important than the tragedies in this world. And that it is okay to wait more than four decades to bear witness against evil. That doesn't build character. That builds self-absorbed smugness and arrogance.
The modern Olympic games were not reborn merely to replicate ancient Rome’s “bread and circuses.” Baron Pierre de Coubertin wanted to instill a striving for excellence. Moral as well as physical. A striving for standards of civility between people and nations. We need to remember this.
Forty-four years ago, eleven Israeli athletes were butchered by killers from Yassir Arafat’s PLO at the Munich Olympics. Ironically, the assassins were members of a group called “Black September” so named for Jordanian King Hussein’s actions in September of 1970 when he moved against the PLO in his own country. His forces killed thousands and the military action resulted in the expulsion of the PLO in July 1971 to Lebanon. The twisted minds of the killers decided to butcher Jews as retaliation for the actions of a Hashemite King.
Every four years, the IOC was asked to have a moment of remembrance. And every four years it refused. It even refused at the first Olympics held after Munich in Montreal in 1976. What made the 2012 refusal so galling was that IOC president Jacques Rogge authorized a ten minute ceremony at the beginning of the London Games to commemorate the names of Olympians and Olympic officials who had recently passed away. The commemoration of the Israeli athletes was done by the British-Israel Council far from Olympic Park..
Not all cowered in 2012. The entire Italian Olympic team paid a silent tribute outside the Israeli team’s quarters. And in a related incident French swimmer Fabien Gilot, a member of the gold-winning relay team, raised his left arm in victory revealing a tattoo in Hebrew letters of the phrase “I am nothing without them.” Gilot, who is not Jewish, explained it was a tribute to his Jewish grandfather Max Goldschmidt who was a survivor of Auschwitz. The symbolism was not lost on anyone.
Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano attacked IOC president Rogge in 2012 at the official Guildhall ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the murders. Before a nearly 1,000-strong audience, Mrs. Romano, widow of the weightlifter Yosef Romano, declared to Dr Rogge: "You will be written down in the pages of history as a former athlete, who became a president, and violated the Olympic Charter calls for brotherhood, friendship and peace…your way is the way of ignoring and denial. Remember, the very last breaths of our loved ones were taken under the five Olympic rings, which are still bleeding." Ankie Spitzer, widow of the fencing coach Andre Spitzer, was even more scathing. She told Jacques Rogge: "Shame on you IOC, because you have forgotten 11 members of the Olympic Family. You are discriminating against them only because they are Israelis and Jews. We will come back until we hear the words you need to say, because you owe them.”
We all owe them indeed. It is right and just that the commemoration finally happened. But if our young people are not taught the sordid history of four decades of IOC hypocrisy, then it may have all been too little, too late. Tell this tale to your children.