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1972, Munich, Olympics, terrorism

A divisive ‘Olympic unity’

The painful and horrifying saga that unfolded over several days in September 1972 during the Munich Olympic Games likely haunts Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano every Olympic season, if not every day. On September 5, 1972, their husbands, Andre Spitzer and Yossef Romano, were taken hostage with nine other members of the Israeli Olympic team and slain by Palestinian terrorists in the Olympic Village in Munich — the place that was meant to unite athletes from all over the world, despite borders and politics. Now, nearly 40 years later, the issue of honoring the Munich massacre victims with a moment of silence at the Olympic Games continues to be a contentious one.

Spitzer and Romano’s widows have been spearheading the effort to institute a moment of silence at the opening ceremony of the games since that ill-fated September — but the International Olympic Committee has repeatedly denied their request on the grounds that “a minute of silence would politicize the Olympic Games or risk alienating countries that have disagreements with Israel.”

A plaque in Tel Aviv in memory of the 11 Israeli athletes who were killed in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. צילום:ד”ר אבישי טייכר

Last month, leading up to the 2012 Olympic Games in London in July, the IOC again rejected the widows’ request in its response to a letter sent by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon on behalf of the two women.

Several politicians in the U.S. and the U.K. have also thrown their support behind the moment-of-silence initiative — with the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passing a resolution supporting the call last week — but to no avail.

Yet the IOC was not the only one to reject the idea. In a move that raised quite a few eyebrows, Israel’s representative on the IOC, of all people, came out against the initiative earlier this month. Alex Gilady said a moment of silence would “damage the unity of the Olympic movement” and that he would not want to give “our enemies an opportunity to boycott the games.” His remarks were met with a spate of criticism, but they also revealed cracks in what was thought to be a unified Israeli front in support of the campaign.

In his defense, Gilady told me he never opposed the moment-of-silence idea, but rather said it was a matter of poor timing. He also lamented a missed opportunity, explaining that such a measure should have been instituted long ago.

“During the Munich games there was a ceremony the day after the massacre,” he said. “Four years later, there was an opportunity to have a memorial in Montreal — that would have been the right time. The Israeli National Olympic Committee asked for it but was not persistent. It was not handled correctly and so it did not become a part of the [opening] ceremony. The first time this issue resurfaced was in 1996 in Atlanta. Ever since then, the widows have been trying to push this, and while I’m very sympathetic to them, the danger this would pose to the unity of the Olympic movement is leading the IOC to reject it,” he said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon, who has become one of the biggest proponents of the “Just One Minute” campaign, dismissed Gilady’s argument, saying a technicality should not be used as an excuse to dismiss the idea.

“I would say to that, better late than never,” Ayalon told me. “There is no reason whatsoever not to have this moment of silence. It’s long overdue. Alex Gilady is right. It should have done in 1976 — it should have been done at any Olympic games. But this year is the 40th anniversary [of the Munich massacre]; it’s a special date. And we also have to remember that as days go by, fewer of the victims’ family members are still alive. I think all decent people should support it, and not subscribe to the excuse that because it was not honored 36 years ago it should not be honored now.”

In my conversation with Gilady, he suggested that the timing was not right for this campaign because there is no “peace.”

“This will tremendously harm the unity of the Olympic games. We are trying to bring the whole world together, and this, right now, before there is peace, will be very difficult to achieve,” he said, but did not elaborate on what exactly he meant by “peace.”

Asked if he believed the minute of silence would cause Arab countries to boycott the Olympics, he again said, “It will destroy the unity of the Olympic games,” adding, “You can interpret it any way you want.”

But Ayalon told me he does not buy this argument.

“First of all, this is not a reason for the IOC not to make the right decision. If it’s the right decision, you take it,” he said. “Commemorating the memory of 11 Israeli athletes that were killed is not a matter of politics, it’s a matter of morality, it’s a matter of teaching a lesson to the younger generation. On the contrary, I think this would be a message of unity. It’s important for the Olympic Committee and all athletes to be united against terrorism.”

“I don’t buy that some will boycott the games,” Ayalon went on. “If they boycott it, they are boycotting themselves. And [if they do] it flagrantly demonstrates that they side with the terrorists. Perhaps Iran would boycott it, but this is not a great loss. If there is a risk of people not showing up, I think the risk is theirs.”

Herein lies the real question we — or rather the IOC — should be asking. IOC members should be concerned not with whether having a moment of silence would alienate or repel countries hostile to Israel, but why it would repel them at all. A country needn’t be a friend of Israel to be a foe of terrorism and an opponent of murdering Olympians. Unless these countries condone such action, why would they choose to boycott the premier international sporting event and risk looking like they support the bad guys?

Victims of the Munich massacre may not be honored with a moment of silence this year, but the push for such a commemoration only appears to be growing stronger as more people rally behind the campaign.

“We are not going to let up,” Ayalon told me. “I believe we will see more letters, and more resolutions by national parliaments all over the world.” Even Gilady told me he does not believe the idea should be dropped, but that there may be a more appropriate time for it in the future when there is “peace” — whatever he means by that.

In light of this pressure, the IOC — concerned with preserving “the unity of the Olympic movement” — will have to consider the repercussions of its refusal, if not this year then at the next games or the ones after that. It will have to ask itself whether holding a moment of silence for athletes murdered in the name of a political cause would truly be divisive. Perhaps it is more divisive not to pause for a moment simply to appease nations who may not support this “unity” in any case?


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