Over the weekend, the Obama administration, speaking through National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, joined a chorus of voices calling for a minute of silence during this year’s Olympic opening ceremonies to honor the memory of 11 Israeli athletes and trainers slain by terrorist hostage-takers during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.
Spurred on by an online petition started by the Ankie Spitzer, whose husband, fencing coach Andrei Spitzer was one of the victims, the governments of Germany, Israel, recent Olympic hosts Australia and Canada as well as the mayor of London have issued resolutions or public statements of support for the 40th anniversary commemoration.
Despite this momentum, the International Organizing Committee (IOC), led by President Jacques Rogge who competed in ‘72, and Israel’s Olympic Committee member, Alex Gilady, who covered the Munich games as a journalist, remain firmly opposed to the measure.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Gilady although sympathetic, seems wary of risking a negative reaction from Israel’s geopolitical adversaries that could threaten its ability to compete internationally. Recalling a 1981 incident in which Israel was excluded from an Asian Sporting Federation by regional foes, Gilady stated,
“For me the most important thing at the moment is that Israel have stages to compete on.”
Rogge for his part seems content to support remembrances far away from the Opening Ceremonies. Speaking to the press following an IOC meeting, he reiterated his intention to attend a reception of remembrance on August 6th, and a September 5thceremony marking the date when nine of the Israelis were killed during a botched rescue attempt at a German airfield.
The 1972 Olympics, were the first held in Germany since the 1936 Games in Berlin which took place amidst the rise of Nazism. Nicknamed “The Happy Games,” security was lax and on the night of September 4th, eight terrorists from the Palestinian group “Black September” climbed over a fence and into the Olympic village, killing two members of the Israeli delegation and taking nine hostage.
The Games continued for much of the crisis, which played out for 16 hours, live, on television. The eight hijackers were later lured to an airfield along with the hostages, with the false promise of a flight to Egypt. In the ensuing ambush, five of the hostage-takers and the nine remaining hostages were killed. The three surviving militants were captured, but released later that year during negotiations with hijackers of a West German passenger airplane. Israel’s military and intelligence response was later depicted in the Steven Spielberg movie Munich..
The IOC’s response to the tragedy that week set the stage for the strained relationship between the victims’ families and the committee. In his speech at the ceremony held following a brief suspension of competition, then IOC President Avery Brundage framed the terrorist attacks as but one more challenge to the Olympic spirit, likening it a recent controversy over professional participation and an earlier vote to exclude Rhodesia, an African nation that practiced apartheid.
Following the ceremony, Olympic flags flown at half-mast were re-hoisted.
Although the IOC, citing protocol, seems reticent to endorse anything that could be considered political or controversial during the Opening Ceremony, there exists some precedent for the recognition of past human tragedy at that venue. The Salt Lake Olympics in the Winter of 2002 featured a procession of athletes carrying a flag from Ground Zero, as well as an honor guard of first responders from New York City.
Thus far, American sportscaster Bob Costas has signaled his intention to observe a minute of silence during his broadcast of the opening ceremonies on NBC and it seems possible that some similar organized response by sympathetic athletes will take shape in the days ahead.
It’s important to note that no specific nation has been publicly identified as opposing the proposed remembrance.
As of Monday morning, Spitzer’s petition has garnered over 100,000 signatures.
For more on the operation to rescue the hostages and Israel's eventual retaliation see this report posted by the Federation of American Scientists. Political Note: The Salt Lake Olympics video includes increasingly rare footage of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney side by side.