Forty years ago, in the early morning of Sept. 5, 1972, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches who had gathered to participate in the Munich Summer Olympics were kidnapped and later killed, along with a police officer who died attempting to rescue them.
Today, athletes, coaches, organizers and spectators will gather to mark the beginning of the tenth Summer Olympic Games since that date.
Yet in London this evening, as 16,000 athletes and 62,000 spectators stand in the same symbolic space from which those victims were taken, there will be bells (three non-stop minutes of them), whistles and 10,000 performers - but no mention of those who lost their lives while seeking to celebrate the ideals of international cooperation and sportsmanship the ceremonial hubbub purports to honor.
Despite requests from the Israeli and German foreign ministers and the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge has refused to include a minute of silence honoring the fallen athletes in the opening ceremonies.
Instead, Rogge relegated remembrance of the athletes to a small ceremony on Monday, attended by about 100 people, promoting the Olympic Truce, a U.N.-backed initiative that calls on warring countries to suspend hostilities during the games. There will also be a private reception in London during the games and a memorial in Germany on the date of the attack, which will be attended by members of the IOC. The minute of silence initiated by Rogge at the Olympic Truce ceremony will be the first time the athletes have been officially honored inside an Olympic village since the year of their deaths.
According to Rogge, the reason why the Israeli athletes will be honored only at small ceremonies and not during the main opening events is because the opening ceremony, with its celebratory jubilance, is “an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident.” But a true celebration of Olympic values ought to acknowledge not just the times when those values have triumphed, but also the difficulties and obstacles that must be overcome to bring nations and peoples of the world together. I can think of no better way to do this than spending a moment in remembrance of the slain Israeli athletes. Similarly, at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games in 2002, it was right and appropriate for athletes to carry the American flag rescued from the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
Rogge’s real fear does not seem to be that of injecting a measure of solemnity into a schedule of events that are otherwise more homage to spectacle itself than to internationalism, but rather that of appearing “political.” The ongoing conflict between Israel and the Arab nations has already made its way into the games, with Egyptian citizens calling on their athletes to boycott Israeli contestants by refusing to compete against them. Rogge appears to worry that an official recognition of the murdered Israeli athletes, who were killed by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, may give the appearance that the IOC is taking sides.
But remembering those who were senselessly killed in the midst of a gathering dedicated to peace need not be a matter of taking sides. The only side the IOC would be required to take would be that of security over terror, that of non-violence over violence. In short, the side that the IOC and the Olympic Games themselves should already represent.
While those at the Olympic village in London will not have the opportunity to honor the 11 Israeli athletes and the German police officer who died 40 years ago, at least some of the millions of people expected to watch the ceremony on television may. NBC Sports anchor Bob Costas, who has been the lead host of NBC’s Olympics coverage for 20 years, has said he intends to commemorate the tragedy in some way during the broadcast. NBC, however, has refused to confirm this. The IOC is responsible for doling out rights to televise Olympic events, and the network may be reluctant to do anything that would jeopardize its ability to win those rights again when its current agreement ends, after the 2020 Games.
I don’t have much interest in the Olympics in general, and I would rather watch kids play stickball in the street than spend time gawking at the opening pageantry. But if I find myself anywhere near a TV during the ceremony today, I will tune in to see if NBC steps up to do what the Olympics ought to have done on its own. And wherever I am, near a TV or not, I will personally take a moment to remember the individuals who died in the 1972 attack.