The memory of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the hands of Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games is something that should be permanently ensconced into Olympic history.
But that memory has eroded over the last four decades. For whatever reason – benign neglect, political expediency, an anti-Israel animus among some countries, not wanting to relive painful history – the terrorist attack and the botched response that resulted in the murder of innocent athletes has been relegated largely to a footnote in Olympic history.
We were painfully reminded of this fact when the International Olympic Committee refused to hold a moment of silence in memory of the murdered Israeli athletes during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Those games coincided with the 40th anniversary of the infamous terrorist attack by the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September. So the moment was ripe for a reconsideration of this lacuna in history and memory.
But the leadership at the time did not have the moral courage or political will to get it done. The Olympic Committee balked with more of the usual excuses — that a moment of silence was inappropriate, would detract from the current athletes’ moment, or would somehow politicize the games.
Things may finally be changing.
In June, the IOC, under new leadership, confirmed that it would contribute $250,000 toward a memorial for the Israeli victims of the attack. The German Olympic Sports Confederation had already pledged $27,000 for the project, and the German government is moving ahead with a competition for the memorial’s design. Construction is expected to be completed by fall 2016.
We firmly support this effort to commemorate the Munich massacre. It has been a long time coming and, as with all things relating to terrorism targeting innocent civilians, late is always better than never. Munich, scene of the Beer Hall Putsch and one of the staging grounds for the Nazi Holocaust, needs one more memorial.
Last week, Olympic officials and German and Israeli governments gathered in Munich near the Olympic stadium to decide how best to create a permanent memorial to the darkest day in the games’ history.
That day began before dawn on September 5, 1972, when eight members of the Palestinian terror group Black September donned athletic track suits and quietly scaled the fence of the Olympic Village. They killed two Israelis and took nine hostages. When the rescue attempt failed the next day, American reporter Jim McKay announced, “Our worst fears have been realized.” All of the remaining Israeli athletes were dead.
Hours later, flags of participating nations were lowered to half-staff, except those of 10 Arab countries which objected and demanded their flags be raised back to full height.
Just hours after that single gesture, the games continued as if nothing had happened. The Israeli team flew home with its murdered teammates. Demands to suspend the Olympics were ignored, though some athletes left in protest of their own accord.
Over the next four decades, requests to pay appropriate respect to the murdered athletes went unheeded. Ankie Spitzer, widow of slain Israeli fencer Andre Spitzer, spearheaded a campaign for a moment of silence to be held at the past 10 opening ceremonies, which was championed by more than 100,000 signatures online, as well as governments in the U.S., U.K., Italy, Germany, Australia and beyond. Those requests fell on deaf ears.
A dramatic shift took place last year with the election of a new IOC president, Dr. Thomas Bach. Bach has chosen a new path, one of remembrance for the victims and honor for the IOC. As a German fencer who won a gold medal at the 1976 games, Bach remembers the pain of his teammates and his competitors as they lived this tragedy.
He has announced the IOC’s full support for the Munich memorial.
The Palestinian terrorist murders of Israeli athletes cruelly mocked the Olympic ideal of Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, who wanted the Olympic movement to create international friendship and goodwill that would lead to a more peaceful world. Surely De Coubertin would have been perplexed and dismayed at the Olympic Committee’s unwillingness to honor the victims.
The Olympics should remain apolitical, and the memorial will reinforce that founding principle. For too long and by too many, it was assumed that a memorial would inject the politics of the Middle East into the Olympics. To the contrary, the rejection of terrorism and the commemoration of its victims highlight the separation between the ideals of the Olympics and the depravity of terrorism.
The memorial will mark that one moment when the separation was breached.
Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. Dr. Steven Ungerleider, a psychologist, author and former collegiate athlete, has served for over 30 years as a consultant to the Olympic Committee.