Forty years after the killing of eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) rejected international requests to commemorate the murdered athletes with a single minute of silence at the beginning of the London games.
Not one single minute. So what are the Olympics all about anyway? They no longer celebrate amateurism in sports – that façade was buried completely with Michael Jordan and the 1992 USA basketball “Dream Team.” Thankfully. Communist countries had been dancing around the amateur/professional divide for decades, and everyone knew it. But people still like to wax poetic about the Olympic spirit which is supposed to represent some sort of hazy oasis of goodwill untarnished by bigotry or politics.
But is any of that true? Maybe we can clear some of the smoke from the haziness.
You can’t really understand true Olympic spirit until you understand what happened in Munich in 1972. And you can’t really understand Munich 1972, without first understanding Berlin 1936.
The 1936 Olympics are most happily remembered for Jesse Owens’ magnificent track performance, where he won four gold medals for the United States and demonstrated to the world that there was nothing superior about Aryan athletes.
That is what we like to remember. But 1936 was about much more than just Jesse Owens.
There was controversy from the start. Newspapers worldwide were informing their readers about German persecution of Jews, Gypsies, and communists. Germany had removed almost all Jews and Gypsies from their Olympic team, including Gypsy middleweight boxing champion Johann Trollmann and Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann. Bergmann learned that she had been barred from the team after breaking the German woman’s high jump record in the Olympic trials. She was also informed that her record had been expunged. Several countries considered boycotting the Olympics, including USA. However, former US Olympic athlete and then current head of the US Olympic Team, Avery Brundage, changed his mind after a trip to Germany where he was wined, dined, and taken to a special athletic training course created just for Jews.
In the end, Hitler played host to the United States and 50 other countries – the largest number ever gathered together since the modern Olympics commenced in 1896. He greeted the athletes in a new 110,000-seat stadium, the largest ever built at the time, and many athletes greeted him back with the straight-arm Nazi salute as they marched by during opening ceremonies.
The Games proceeded as smoothly as Germany could have hoped. In order to avoid negative publicity during the Olympic period, the usual “Jews not Wanted” signs were removed from stores, and the virulently anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Stürmer, was removed from newsstands. Other German newspapers and magazines avoided printing inflammatory articles.
Meanwhile, on the United States team, two superb Jewish track stars, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, were informed on the day of the event that they would not be running in their scheduled 4x100 meter relay. Instead, Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, clearly two of the greatest runners ever, would replace them. But the US was already expected to win the relay, so why substitute Owens and Metcalfe in that race among all possible races and runners? Glickman, who later gained fame as a sports announcer, said that he believed Avery Brundage had pressured the American track coach to replace Stoller and him not because they might lose but because they were expected to win. According to Glickman “…it was enough humiliation for Germany to have black Americans winning gold medals, but having Jews on the gold medal victory stand was too much'' (as reported by Ira Berkow in The New York Times).
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Thirty-six years later, the Olympics were held in Munich, and Germany was ready to show the world that it had changed. Things went wrong, fast.
On September 5, 1972, Palestinian terrorists from the Fatah “Black September” movement climbed over a low-security fence into the Olympic village, armed with machine guns and hand grenades, and invaded the Israeli compound. They killed two Israeli athletes during a fight, dumped the naked corpse of one of them out the window, took nine others hostage, and demanded that Israel release 234 Palestinian prisoners and Germany release two others. A captivated world community followed the unfolding drama on television even while the Olympic Games, themselves, continued unabated.
When both Germany and Israel refused their demands, the terrorists demanded a plane to take them to Egypt.
The plan to save the Israeli hostages at the airport was completely botched. A special unit of German police who were part of a daring operation to ambush the terrorists literally quit in the middle of the exercise. Police officers who remained on duty discovered that their radios didn’t work, and they had no way to communicate. German armored cars on the way to the airport to intercept the terrorists got stuck in traffic.
In the final shoot-out at the airport, there were more terrorists then police officers. Realizing that they couldn’t escape, the terrorists killed all nine hostages from the Israeli Olympic Team. German police killed five terrorists and captured three survivors who were imprisoned to await trial. But they didn’t stay there for long.
Less than two months later, members of the Black September group hijacked a Lufthansa airline on October 29 and demanded that Germany release the three terrorists. Everything happened fast. The hijacking lacked the usual violence. Germany immediately acceded to the demands. Rumors leaked that Germany and the Black September group staged the entire hijacking as a means to rid Germany of the captured terrorists. Were the rumors true?
Years later, two different documentaries, ESPN/ABC's The Tragedy of the Munich Games and Kevin Macdonald’s award-winning One Day in September, revived the collusion theory with information and testimonies that the Lufthansa hijacking was staged (including a corroborative statement from a former German minister).
In his book, Why Terrorism Works, Allan Dershowitz also supports this theory. He claims that both Palestinian and German sources confirmed that Chancellor Willy Brandt and the Palestinian authority had concocted the phony hijacking to get the captured terrorists off German soil.
The point here is that there was no difference between the political maneuvering inside the Olympics beginning with IOC’s mishandling of the crisis to resume playtime as usual and that which occurred outside the Olympic village where Germany aimed to rid itself of the captured terrorists to resume business as usual.
The Munich Olympic Games continued for twelve hours after the first two Israelis had been killed. Only in response to international criticism did the German Olympic team and IOC President Avery Brundage agree to suspend Olympic play. Yes, this was the same Avery Brundage who had led the US Olympic team to a controversial appearance in Berlin in 1936.
After the massacre, the Olympic Committee suspended activities for one day and held a memorial service before 80,000 people and 3,000 athletes where Brundage spoke. He compared the terrorist event to the ongoing debate about professionalism in sports, said very little about the murdered Israeli athletes, and concluded with a rousing declaration that “The show must go on!” The audience cheered. In her recent article, Jewish Blood is Cheep, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt recounts that sports writer Red Smith described the service as more of a pep rally than a memorial.
The show went on.
And now, 40 years later, the International Olympic Committee has rejected a request for a minute of silence during the opening ceremonies to honor the murdered Israeli athletes. Last week, current IOC president Jacques Rogges told family members and relatives of the murdered Israeli athletes that it would contradict the spirit of the event.
He couldn’t be further from the truth. The murder of eleven Israeli Olympic athletes contradicted the spirit of the event, and denying a minute of silence to commemorate the victims demonstrated weakness if not a blatant disregard for the Olympic ideals Mr. Rogges has sworn to support. A minute of silence would have honored the Olympic principle of respect and concern of all those in the Olympic family regardless of national, ethnic, or religious roots.
Rogges rejected the minute of silence for the Israelis “on principle” even though, Lipstadt notes, he led a minute of silence in the 2010 Olympic games to remember a Georgian luger killed in an accident and the 2002 Olympics began with a moment of silence to honor those killed in 9/11.
It is impossible to disentangle politics from the Olympics, and pretending otherwise simply allows a smoother path for those with a political agenda. The Berlin Olympics enabled Hitler to whitewash the transgressions of Nazism before a world audience – a world that played along with the pretense that the games transcended politics. Munich became the stage for murder and terrorism – political acts based on nationalistic goals and religious bias. The slow response by the IOC to suspend the games during the crises was a decision with political overtones.
Interestingly, many countries expressed support for a minute of silence, including Canada, England, Germany, Australia, Italy and the United States. Both Obama and Romney said they supported the moment of silence. So why did Rogges oppose it?
As reported by Benjamin Weinthal in The National Review, Ankie Spitzer, the widow of Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer who spearheaded the minute of silence efforts, claims Rogges admitted that “his hands were tied.” The reason Rogges believed his hand were tied was because the 46-member bloc of Arab and Muslim countries threatened to boycott the Games if the Olympic committee honored the slain Israelis.
Which would have been a political statement.
The reality is that there is no border — no oasis — that separates the Olympics from politics. There are only political decisions made in the context of the Olympics that affirm or contradict the ideal of reverence and respect for all athletes.
Berlin and Munich contradicted this ideal.
So did the decision to reject the minute of silence.
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Excellent post, David. The IOC's denial of the request for a minute of silence in memory of the slain Israeli athletes in Munich did indeed contradict the spirit of the Olympic games. It was a cowardly capitulation to an empty threat by Israel's enemies that they would boycott the London games.
You made wonderful use of history to place this latest situation in context.
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