To think the world can come together every couple of years at the Olympic Games and leave all the world’s problems behind is the height of naiveté.
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And that naiveté couldn’t have been on more clear display than on Thursday, when the International Olympic Committee decided again to avoid making a choice that is as politically fraught as it is morally right: To honor the Israeli victims of the terrorist attacks at the Munich Olympics 40 years ago in the opening ceremonies in London.
It’s perfectly understandable that the IOC wants to continue the farce that the Olympics are the one place where the world can come together in a completely apolitical setting that celebrates peace and sport and leaves the world’s ugly realities behind. What’s so great about the Olympics is how they are that example of world unity, our finest example of sport bringing people together across the barriers we put up between nations.
But what the IOC needn’t do is sacrifice doing the right thing in the name of political correctness.
"This was not about 11 Israelis or 11 Jews," said David Kirschtel, the CEO of JCC Rockland, a New York Jewish community center that’s spearheading a petition drive for a minute of silence at the 2012 opening ceremonies. "There were 11 guys who came on the Olympic playing field to compete and who went home in coffins, and the world should remember that."
Think the Olympics can keep out the problems of the world? It’s a noble ideal, and it’s impossible to achieve. Royal families inserted themselves into the Olympics from the earliest days of the modern Games that began in 1896. Three Olympics were canceled because of World Wars I and II. Adolf Hitler turned the 1936 Berlin Games into a propaganda show for the Nazis, and Jesse Owens heroically offered an athletic rebuke to the Aryan ideal. Olympic boycotts started in 1956, when a couple of Muslim countries refused to attend the Games to protest the Israeli takeover of the Suez Canal. It continued in 1980 and 1984, when the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively, traded Cold War jabs by blowing off each other’s Games. Tommie Smith and John Carlos flashed the black power salute on the medal stand at the height of the civil rights movement during the 1968 Summer Games, and at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, US president George W. Bush sat next to Russian president Vladimir Putin and harangued him about Russia’s invasion of Georgia.
The world always finds a way to insert its problems into the Olympic Games.
It’s noble for the IOC to fight to keep the Olympics as much of a pure athletic competition as possible. But when the Olympics try to ignore the fact that 40 years ago the first terrorist attack that captured the world’s attention occurred on Olympic soil — try to paper over the darkest moment in the history of the Games — that noble Olympic ideal turns into a Pollyanna-ish attempt to avoid confronting a difficult topic.
If the IOC were to insert a moment of silence for the "Munich 11" into London’s opening ceremonies, some Muslim nations surely would walk out and perhaps boycott the Olympics in its entirety. This would be a public relations disaster for the Olympic movement. But there are some times when courage ought to outweigh political correctness, when the tough path is better than the easy path.
Ankie Spitzer, the widow of murdered Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer, has led the surviving families in asking for a minute of silence every four years since 1972, and she has been rebuffed each time.
"Apparently, both Jacques Rogge of the IOC and Sebastian Coe of the Organising Committee, have forgotten that once they were Olympic athletes as well," Spitzer said in response to this latest rebuke. "They had the same dreams and expectations as our fathers, husbands and sons. However, our loved ones came home in coffins. Not to remember them in the Olympic framework for the past 40 years is inconceivable and all their lame excuses have run out. Now it only reeks like discrimination."
Especially when there are other options, too — such as a minute of silence that’s a vaguer plea for world peace, an option advocated by the family of American émigré David Berger, the only American-born Israeli athlete killed in Munich.
Recognizing a deceased Olympic athlete at the opening ceremonies isn’t unheard of. At the 2010 Winter Games, a moment of silence was held for the Georgian luger who died during a practice run days before the Games began. But recognizing 11 deceased Israeli Olympians seems a bit more difficult.
"I don’t think the International Olympic Committee wants to dwell on what was an absolute tragedy that took place in (the) Olympic Village," Kirschtel said. "In my own opinion, politically, Arab countries, if there was a minute of silence, I don’t know if they would come. … But at the end of the day, when you have a tragedy like that that takes place at the Olympics, how can you not acknowledge it?"
After the 1972 terrorist attack, the Olympics were suspended for a day, and a memorial service was held. The Olympic flag was flown at half-staff, but 10 Arab countries objected and the IOC cowed to their demands and raised the flags.
A day later, the Olympics resumed. At a packed stadium for a soccer game between West Germany and Hungary, spectators unfurled a banner that referred to the 11 dead Israeli athletes and coaches as well as others who died in the attacks.
The banner read "17 dead, already forgotten?" Those spectators were kicked out of the stadium by Olympic security.
Both of those incidents should be seen as shocking displays of a lack of that same courage extolled by the Olympic ideal. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that, 40 years after the fact, the IOC continues to ignore the victims of the Olympic terror attack that ushered in a new and terrifying era in world history.
In London, the only IOC-sponsored memorial to the 11 Olympic athletes and coaches murdered in 1972 will be the phalanx of security surrounding the Games.
The IOC clearly doesn’t want Munich to be repeated.
But it also seems like the IOC doesn’t want Munich to be remembered.
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