LONDON – As worldwide pressure grows for a memorial to the 11 Israeli victims of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre during Friday’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Summer Games, the International Olympic Committee continues to be resolutely opposed.
The idea of a remembrance has gained more traction this year than ever before. The White House is for it. The U.S. House and Senate have supported it in resolutions. So have the Canadian and German parliaments, the German foreign minister and 30 German athletes. And the government of Israel, from its prime minister to deputy foreign minister, has for the first time become publicly involved in asking for a minute of silence.
President Obama threw his support behind an online petition for the minute of silence that now has more than 103,000 signatures.
“Yes, we absolutely support the campaign for a minute of silence at the Olympics to honor the Israeli athletes killed in Munich,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.
IOC President Jacques Rogge of Belgium rebuffed those calls at a press conference Saturday night.
“We always pay deep attention to recommendations coming from the political world,” he said. “We are not necessarily following this advice.”
The IOC’s attitude involves an element of realpolitik. It clearly is fearful of the potential uproar that could follow from the nearly two dozen Arab countries and some two dozen more primarily Muslim countries sending teams to London.
That Israel is a lightning rod for enmity in parts of the world obviously complicates the situation. That is why Ankie Spitzer, who has spent four decades as a leader in the effort for a memorial moment during an opening ceremony, is willing to strip such a moment of all religious and nationalistic references.
“You don’t even have to say they were Jews or Israelis,” Spitzer said during a recent telephone interview. “Just tell the world that in 1972, 11 members of the Olympic family, athletes and coaches, were killed.”
Spitzer’s husband, fencing coach Andrei, was among those killed by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September.
“Ours is not a message of hate and revenge,” she said. “Quite the opposite: we want people to remember, so that this will never happen again."
Beginning a Monday Olympic Village ceremony promoting the idea of an Olympic truce, Rogge surprisingly made a call to honor the memory of the 11 Israelis and then stood in silence for a minute.
"They came to Munich in the spirit of peace and solidarity," Rogge said, according to wire service reports. "We owe it to them to keep the spirit alive and to remember them."
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The same news reports said there were only about 100 witnesses to Rogge's action.
The Jewish Federations of North America reacted by saying, "While IOC President Jacques Rogge held a moment of silence at the Olympic Village this morning, this group has emphasized the need for a larger moment for reflection that the world can participate in."
Spitzer also found the gesture insufficient.
"This is not the right solution, to hold some ceremony in front of 30 or 40 people," she told the Jerusalem Post. "We asked for a moment of silence at the opening ceremony, not for someone to mumble something in front of a few dozen people."
Israel’s IOC member, Alex Gilady, is among those opposed to having a moment of silence in the London opening ceremony, a stand many in his country find incomprehensible.
Gilady’s rationale is simple: he remembers when Israel was thrown out of the Asian Olympic Association in 1981 and could not get another continental sports affiliation until the efforts of people including Rogge helped Israel become a member of the European Olympic Committees in 1994. Gilady fears a moment of silence will create a backlash endangering Israel’s place in international sport.
“I believe I am acting in best interest of Israeli sport,” Gilady said in a telephone interview. “For me, the most important thing at the moment is that Israel have stages to compete on….I hope the moment will come we can have appropriate commemoration in the Olympic stadium for the Israelis killed in Munich.”
When might that be?
“When we have a better environment,” he said. “When there is peace.”
Spitzer, 66, a Middle East correspondent for Dutch and Belgian television networks, calls Gilady, “the main obstacle.” She has tried to plead the case with Rogge, IOC president since 2001, and London Olympic Organizing Committee chairman Seb Coe, both Olympic athletes. She has hoped in vain that speaking the same language as Rogge – Flemish – would establish a better understanding between them.
“I told him (Rogge), `You were an Olympic athlete in 1972, with the same dreams and expectations as my husband. Why can you not understand this has to be done?’’’ Spitzer said.
“He told me his hands were tied. I said, ``The hands of 11 members of the Olympic family were tied, and then they came home in coffins.’
“They keep saying, `It’s not the time yet.’ What do they want me to do, keep knocking on their door when I am 90?”
Rogge. a notoriously circumspect man, turned down in May an official request for a commemoration from Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, with the IOC saying it had acknowledged the tragedy in the past.
That is a reference to the ceremony that took place in the Munich Olympic Stadium the day after the massacre and memorials like those during the last two Summer Games, which were organized by the Israelis and did not take place in an Olympic venue. That will be the case again Aug. 6 in London, where the memorial will be in the Guildhall, with Coe and London mayor Boris Johnson expected to attend.
“I will be recognizing it in my own way,” Coe said. “I think the IOC has been very clear that we have marked that moment – in Munich and any number of times subsequent to that. I think the IOC have got the right balance.
“We had 52 people mowed down in this city (by suicide bombers with links to al-Qaeda) the day after the Games (were awarded) who were in an Olympic city, whose relatives and families feel they are part of our seven-year family as well. We are not having a minute of silence in the Games for them.”
Some worry that the Palestinians even want a commemoration of the five Munich terrorists killed by German police during an ill-fated attempt to rescue the Israelis taken hostage before being executed by their captors.
Spitzer said she remains optimistic IOC officials will have an 11th-hour change of heart. If not, she is asking the spectators at the opening ceremony to stand simultaneously at some point to make a statement.
She notes that in the opening ceremony at the Vancouver Winter Games, there was a moment of silence (“and rightly so”) for Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who had died in a training crash that morning. The ceremony was dedicated to the Georgian.
"It is hard to stay composed," Rogge said then, his voice cracking, at a press conference earlier that day. "It's a very sad day. The IOC is in deep mourning. Here you have a young athlete who died pursuing his passion. I have no words to say what we feel."
Yet Rogge said Saturday night, “We feel the opening ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident.”
When I approached him after the press conference to ask why it was fit to honor the Georgian luger at the opening ceremony, he replied, “This happened the same day.”
“The IOC has honored the Israeli athletes immediately after the killings on the fifth of September,” he continued. “There was a major ceremony in the Olympic Stadium on the 6th. Then we continued to honor the memory of the athletes over the years.”
In the ceremony on Sept. 6, 1972, then IOC President Avery Brundage praised the strength of the Olympic movement, said the Games must go on, made no reference to the specific athletes and coaches murdered and compared their loss to the exclusion of Rhodesia because of the threat of an African boycott.
“We mourn our Israeli friends,” is all Brundage brought himself to say.
Since then, the families of the victims have pressed for a more fitting acknowledgement at the world’s most-watched ceremony, the Summer Olympic opening ceremony. Once again, it appears that will not happen.