Jacques Rogge, IOC president, may have resolved that inclusion of the minute of silence is likely to fan the flames of the Arab-Israeli conflict and lead some nations to threaten to pull their delegations, if not actually do so.
With delegations from 205 countries, more than 100 heads of state, tens of thousands of journalists, hundreds of thousands of volunteers, and millions of fans planning to attend, this summer’s Olympic Games in London are seen as a prime backdrop for a terrorist attack. For the better part of the past decade, and armed with a £600 million budget, the stable of British security forces have been preparing to foil any such attempt. Surely within that preparation are plans to prevent anything like what happened when 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were killed by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 Games in Munich.
The London Games will mark 40 years since members of the Black September terrorist group broke into the Olympic Village and laid siege to the apartments housing the Israeli team. The terrorists killed two Israeli Olympic team members in the initial assault and took nine others hostage. Then, the terrorists demanded the release of 230 sympathizers being held in Israeli and German jails. Israeli officials, following standard policy, refused to negotiate with the terrorists; German officials planned and launched a rescue mission, which was ultimately botched. The failed mission left the nine Israeli hostages dead, along with five terrorists and one German police officer.
Forty years on, the “Munich Massacre” remains the most notable part of the 1972 Games. Among the athletic feats accomplished there were American swimmer Mark Spitz winning seven gold medals and Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut taking home three golds herself. But, save for the sharpest historian or sports fan, does anyone readily recall much of anything about the 1972 Games besides the athletes being killed?
Such is the legacy of Munich’s hosting the Games, which were intended as an act of goodwill on behalf of an evolved Germany: the 1972 Games were the first held in the country since Berlin played host in 1936. Those Games are best-remembered for being used by Adolf Hitler as a grand propaganda exercise for Nazism, and as the scene for American track & field athlete Jesse Owens winning four gold medals. The 1936 Games were also the first to feature a torch relay from Olympia, Greece to the flame cauldron at Olympic Stadium and the first to be broadcast on television. More than footnotes in history, both torch and television played signature roles at the 1972 Games.
Organizers of the Games in Munich kept with what had by then become the Olympic tradition of a torchbearer lighting the cauldron. But they placed the cauldron atop on a lower-than-usual pedestal as a symbolic counter to the Nazi vision. (Today, the cauldron is mostly obscured by trees that have grown up around it.) Television seared into people’s memories the reality of terrorists having slinked into Building 31 of the Olympic Village, which housed the Israeli delegation, and the scene that unfolded there. It gave people around the world live footage of the assailants on the apartment balconies and the hostages they held. Eventually, television delivered the news, personified by ABC Sports broadcaster Jim McKay, that “Our worst fears have been realized tonight. … They’re all gone.”
The murder of Olympic team members and the 1972 Games are inextricably linked. Even the International Olympic Committee (IOC) official summary of the Games begins that they “will be forever associated with the ghastly acts of terror carried out by terrorist group Black September.” This point lines-up with a proposal requesting a minute of silence at this summer’s Games in memory of the 11 members of the Israeli team who were killed in Munich. The request—and an associated public petition—comes from two of the widows of the murdered team members.
Last month, Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, received a letter on the same behalf from Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister. Mr. Rogge responded with a letter of his own. It opens with the assurance that “within the Olympic family, the memory of the victims of the terrible massacre in Munich in 1972 will never fade away.” He also wrote that he will attend a reception the Israeli delegation traditionally holds in memory of the slain athletes. Yet noticeably absent in Mr. Rogge’s message is any mention of the proposed minute of silence. This, if not the message in total, outraged Mr. Ayalon, who contends that “The terrorist murders of the Israeli athletes were not just an attack on people because of their nationality and religion; it was an attack on the Olympic Games and the international community.”
Mr. Rogge, who is stepping-down from the IOC presidency next year after 12 years in office, has a personal connection to the 1972 Games: he represented Belgium in yachting then and has said that his most trying moment as an athlete was deciding to continue to compete in the Games when they resumed after a 34-hour suspension. In his decision this time around, perhaps Mr. Rogge resolved that inclusion of the minute of silence is likely to fan the flames of the Arab-Israeli conflict and lead some nations to threaten to pull their delegations, if not actually do so. Plus, by not making a direct reference to the request he might also have temporarily subdued petitioners for other campaigns, such as one that seeks to ban Saudi Arabia from the 2012 Games because it continues to send only all-male teams to the Olympics or another that seeks a reconsideration of the sponsorship from Dow Chemical Company because of its role in the 1984 gas disaster in Bhopal, India.
But if the IOC is to start actively accepting such requests, where would it draw the line? Trying to satisfy the interests of its more than 200 constituents can leave the organization jumping in different directions. But while giving up the interests of one for the interests of many is reasonable, there is something incompatible about evading the request for the minute of silence and at the same time upholding the Olympic spirit.
The IOC asserts that part of its purpose is to act “as a catalyst for collaboration between all parties of the Olympic family.” It also avows, through long-standing policy, that the Games are to promote international goodwill and are not to be used as a political tool. This is a credible position. But the meaning of the Games—what they were founded on and what they stand for today—is political. Their distinction is that they do not, however, express a political philosophy; rather, they express politics in the sphere of a social value. They affirm the widespread belief that “sports is a common language.” Interestingly, only three of the 11 members of the Israeli squad who were murdered were born in Israel; the eight others were originally from either Libya, Romania, Poland, the Soviet Union, or the United States.
Moreover, the fundamental principles of the Olympic Charter trumpet the placement of sport “at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” They also proclaim that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise” conflicts with the Olympic Movement. Whatever one’s political convictions, it is hard to argue that these principles (and the case can be made for the inclusion of several others) were not violated the moment the Black September terrorists stormed the Olympic Village apartments in Munich.
For his part, there is the off-chance Mr. Rogge figures that not directly responding to the request for the minute of silence will make the call for it go away. Or he may be content with the memorial tribute that was held during the day-plus-long suspension at the 1972 Games; tributes have also been held on the 25th and 30th anniversaries of the killings and at recent IOC general assemblies (though a scant few can claim to recalling or seeing them). Or maybe Mr. Rogge is leaving open the possibility for inclusion of the minute of silence at just before the opening ceremonies kick-off this summer. Another possibility is that Mr. Rogge feels a need to impress upon the public that not every tragedy—or every triumph—can be actively commemorated at an Olympic Games, no less at the opening ceremonies. The ceremonies are largely reserved to refract the host country. This summer in London, for example, icons including the British Monarchy and the Beatles are likely to represented, and the actor Daniel Craig said to be parachuting into the stadium in a cameo appearance as James Bond. Yet no matter where the Games are held, there is never any mistaking that the opening ceremonies are a celebration of the Olympic tradition.
If anything expresses the grossest of contradictions to the Olympic tradition, it is the uncompromising slaughter of members of an Olympic team at an Olympic Games. And that there is still a strong call for commemoration of the “Munich 11” means that the wounds opened 40 years ago have not yet healed—for the families of those murdered, the people of Israel and Germany, and the Olympic community.
Today and in the years ahead, especially given the economic, political, and social convulsions happening throughout the world, the IOC must realize that its mission and work will only become more important. So it’s confusing as to why its officials continue trying to pretend that politics and the Games have nothing to do with each other, when in reality they do. Overcoming this challenge will be the greatest test to their leadership and the maturity of the IOC in the coming years. And the outcome of that test depends on how the officials demonstrate that the experience of what happened in Munich teaches why not to abandon the fundamental principles of Olympism. On the contrary, it teaches the need to strengthen those principles and reaffirm their values and civilities. It is, after all, what the Olympic Games are all about.