For the past few months there has been a concerted effort to get the International Olympic Committee to set aside one minute of silence at the opening ceremony at this year’s games to commemorate the Israeli athletes who were murdered—not killed, murdered—at the Munich games in 1972.
The games, held this year in London, are 17 days long. That’s 24,480 minutes. Despite the fact that petitioners were asking for only one of those minutes, it is now fairly evident that their efforts have failed.
Before speculating on why the IOC has been so steadfast in its refusal, it is worthwhile to reflect on what precisely happened in Munich 40 years ago.
When the Olympics returned to Germany in 1972, the German government was intent that nothing about them evoke the memory of the 1936 Berlin games, held under the heavy hand of Nazi militarism. The Germans wanted these to be “the Happy Games.”
Security would not be in evidence: Athletes freely climbed over the chain link fence surrounding the Olympic Village when they forgot their identification badges. Everything had to be relaxed. Germany had a new face to show the world.
That all changed on the morning of Sept. 5, when Palestinian terrorists from Fatah’s Black September organization scaled the fence around the Olympic Village. Armed with machine guns and grenades, they immediately killed two Israeli athletes and took nine others hostage. They demanded that Israel release 234 Palestinian prisoners and Germany release the two founding members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang.
When the release did not materialize by the late afternoon, the terrorists demanded a plane to take them to Egypt. German officials agreed but planned an ambush at the airport. The ambush was completely botched: A team of German police assigned to entrap the terrorists walked off the job as the terrorists were on their way to the airport.
There were more terrorists than German snipers—and the snipers could not communicate with each other or with the officials in charge. Armored cars, which were ordered for backup, got caught in an hour-long traffic jam around the airport.
A gun battle erupted between the German forces and the terrorists on the tarmac, and the athletes, whom the captors had bound one to another in the helicopters that had brought them to the airport, were caught in the middle. When the terrorists realized that they could not escape, they shot the hostages and then threw a grenade into the helicopters to ensure that they were dead.
Competition at the games had continued until mid-afternoon that Tuesday. Only after a barrage of criticism did IOC President Avery Brundage suspend activities. Brundage, who served as president of American Olympic Committee in the 1930s, had been a great admirer of Hitler and, as late as 1971, had insisted that the Berlin games were one of the best ever.
In 1936, when some Americans tried to organize a boycott of the games, Brundage fought the effort vigorously until he decided to use it as a fundraising tool. He assumed that Jews who were embarrassed by the threat of a boycott would give to the AOC and help decrease anti-Semitism in the United States. Brundage’s plan apparently came to naught.
At the Munich memorial service, held on Wednesday, Sept. 6, the day after the massacre, Brundage defiantly declared: “The games must go on.” His cry was met with cheers by the crowd. (Red Smith of the New York Times described it as more pep rally than memorial.) The games did go on, but the Los Angeles Times reporter Jim Murray described it as “like having a dance at Dachau.”
In the years since, the families of the victims have repeatedly told the IOC that all they want is a chance to mark the murder of athletes who had traveled to the games to do precisely what athletes do: compete at their very best. These victims deserved to be remembered by the very organization that had brought them to Munich.
Why the IOC refusal? The Olympic Committee’s official explanation is that the games are apolitical. The families were repeatedly told by long-time IOC President Juan Samaranch that the Olympic movement avoided political issues. He seemed to have forgotten that at the 1996 opening ceremony he spoke about the Bosnian war. Politics were also present at the 2002 games, which opened with a minute of silence for the victims of 9/11.
The families have also been told that a commemoration of this sort was inappropriate at the opening of such a celebratory event. However, the IOC has memorialized other athletes who died “in the line of duty.” At the 2010 winter games, for example, there was a moment of silence to commemorate an athlete who died in a training accident.
The IOC’s explanation is nothing more than a pathetic excuse. The athletes who were murdered were from Israel and were Jews—that is why they aren’t being remembered.
The only conclusion one can draw is that Jewish blood is cheap, too cheap to risk upsetting a bloc of Arab nations and other countries that oppose Israel and its policies.
I have long inveighed against the tendency of some Jews to see anti-Semitism behind every action that is critical of Israel or of Jews. In recent years some Jews have been inclined to hurl accusations of anti-Semitism even when they are entirely inappropriate. By repeatedly crying out, they risk making others stop listening—especially when the cry is true.
Here the charge is absolutely accurate. This was the greatest tragedy to ever occur during the Olympic Games. Yet the IOC has made it quite clear that these victims are not worth 60 seconds.
Imagine for a moment that these athletes had been from the United States, Canada, Australia, or even Germany. No one would think twice about commemorating them. But these athletes came from a country and a people who somehow deserve to be victims. Their lost lives are apparently not worth a minute.
Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of Nextbook Press’ The Eichmann Trial, is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University.
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