Olympics

Munich widows still seeking silence

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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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LONDON

The two widows stood by a window overlooking the Olympic Stadium, which rose majestically just on the other side of the River Lea. In that sparkling new stadium two days from now, a festive opening ceremonies will kick off the 2012 Summer Olympics, but this is as close as the memory of their slain husbands will get to that celebration. Because the International Olympic Committee doesn’t plan to say a word about the 11 Olympians who died 40 years ago in the terror attacks at the Munich Games, the darkest moment in Olympic history.

LACK OF COMPASSION?

On the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympics massacre, Israel wants a moment of silence for victims in London. Jacques Rogge of the IOC says no. So what is at the heart of the impasse?

Ankie Spitzer has heard a new excuse every four years, ever since she was a 26-year-old newlywed with a newborn and her husband, Andrei Spitzer, the coach of the Israeli fencing team, was kidnapped and killed by the pro-Palestinian terrorist group Black September. She remembers going into the apartment in the Olympic Village after it was all over, a dead Israeli wrestler’s blood still staining the stairs, the walls pocked with bullet holes, uneaten food still on the table, and thinking that she needed to do something to keep her husband remembered.

Every four years since for the past four decades, she’s asked the IOC to take one minute of the opening ceremonies to remember the murdered Olympians.

But every four years there’s always a new excuse from the IOC on why that would not happen. At the Montreal Games in 1976, it was that the 21 Arab delegations would walk out of opening ceremonies if a moment of silence honored the slain Israelis. (“So we said, ‘Let them leave if they don’t understand the special spirit of the Olympics,’ ” Spitzer said.)

Then it was that politics ought to be kept out of the Olympic Games. (“If you have a problem with saying ‘Israel,’ ” Spitzer said, “then just say a few words: ‘Let us not forget what happened in Munich, so it will never ever happen again.’ ”) Then it was that honoring the slain Olympians at opening ceremonies is not in the IOC protocol. (Spitzer: “It wasn’t in the protocol for our husbands to come home in coffins.”) Then it was that it was not time yet. (Spitzer: “We’re 66 now!”) Then it was simply that IOC chief Jacques Rogge, who competed for the Belgian sailing team in the 1972 Games, had his hands tied.

It’s true that, if the IOC were to do the right thing and add a sobering note of remembrance to the opening ceremonies, some would take it as a pro-Israeli political statement. Any mention of Israel in an international context adds fuel to the tinderbox that is Middle Eastern politics.

And it’s true that Rogge and other IOC officials honored the Munich 11 victims earlier this week at a small ceremony inside the Olympic Village, the first time the IOC has paid respect to the Munich 11 victims inside an Olympic Village.

But it’s also true that taking a minute at the opening ceremonies to remember the darkest moment of the modern Olympic Games ought to be, as fellow Munich 11 widow Ilana Romano said, the IOC’s “moral obligation.”

“This is not just an Israeli tragedy, not just a Jewish tragedy,” said Daniel Taub, the Israeli ambassador to Great Britain, who was at a press conference Wednesday with the two widows. “The hostage-taking of Olympic athletes in the Olympic Village during the Olympic Games was quite clearly an attack on the Olympic spirit and the Olympic ideal of peace and understanding through friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

Yes, the opening ceremonies are a time for joy and celebration, yet that did not keep the IOC from using that event to honor a luger from Georgia who was killed during a practice run before the 2010 Winter Games. Yes, it would take a great amount of courage to finally pay respect to these victims 40 years later. Yes, it would be construed by some Arab countries as a pro-Israeli statement, even if the IOC were to cautiously refer to the victims as “Olympic athletes” instead of “Israeli athletes.” And yes, some of those Arab countries might walk out of the opening ceremonies, and perhaps even boycott the Games.

None of this changes the IOC’s moral obligation. In fact, it only makes the moral obligation that more important, to do what might be unpopular because it’s undoubtedly right.

There is something special about the Olympics, something that’s true at no other world event. It’s a place where wars and cultural differences and political wildfires are all set aside. Three days before he was killed, Andrei Spitzer was swimming in that Olympic spirit. He was with his wife in the Olympic Village when he saw the fencing team from Lebanon, a country that was at war with Israel at the time. He went over, shook their hands, and talked with them about fencing. He walked back to his wife, smiling.

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“You see Ankie?” he said. “That’s what I’m here for. Here at the Olympics, there are no borders.”

On Wednesday night Spitzer planned to deliver a petition, signed by 105,000 people in 150 countries, to pressure Rogge to include a minute of silence for the Munich 11 at opening ceremonies. Spitzer’s call has been echoed by President Obama and the U.S. Congress, by the parliaments of Germany and Canada and Israel. NBC announcer Bob Costas has courageously rebuked the IOC by pledging that he’ll remain silent for a full minute on the telecast after the Israeli team walks into opening ceremonies. The two widows are asking attendees at opening ceremonies to stand up in the stadium and remain silent when Rogge addresses the crowd Friday night.

“They were murdered as a member of the Olympic family – at least honor them as members of the Olympic family,” Spitzer said Wednesday.

She was standing in an art gallery displaying dozens of photographs of Muhammad Ali, another person who took an unpopular stand because it was the right thing to do.

“This happened here, at the Olympics,” Spitzer said. “And that’s where they should be honored. I think it’s very simple.”

It’s true that the moral equation here ought to be very simple. It’s unfortunate that, for the IOC, it’s not.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.

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