Haunted by Memories of Munich '72


Allowing U.S. athletes to carry a highly symbolic American flag during tonight's opening ceremony may go far to honor the heroes and victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but it also stirs ghosts that linger from the Olympics' worst tragedy: the 1972 Munich massacres.

Previous attempts to memorialize the 11 Israeli athletes and officials murdered at the '72 Summer Games have fallen short in the eyes of prominent Jews and families of the slain. They want the International Olympic Committee to make a formal gesture--such as a moment of silence--dedicated to the victims. But the IOC has resisted, partly because of concern about protests from Arab delegates.

The plan to honor those who died in last year's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center is highly appropriate, activists say, because victims represented nations around the globe. But as the IOC did an about-face this week to allow an official gesture, they could not help but wonder: What about us?

"In every subsequent Olympics, we asked for just a moment of silence," said Dr. Benjamin Berger of Shaker Heights, Ohio, whose son David was among the athletes killed. "Not a great display, just a moment of silence, to acknowledge the thing that occurred. That's all."

IOC Director General Francois Carrard declined to comment. It has been the contention of IOC leaders that they have repeatedly honored those killed. They point to a memorial service the day after the Sept. 5, 1972, attack and, more recently, comments during the closing ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games as well as remarks by IOC President Jacques Rogge's this week during an all-delegates session in Salt Lake City.

"I have no reservations about doing more in the future," Rogge later said. "I just want to say that we have honored the memory of these athletes."

Both publicly and privately, according to confidential minutes of the IOC's policymaking Executive Board, the committee has struggled to recognize this stark chapter in Olympic history.

The IOC's oft-stated goal is to keep the Games focused on athletic endeavors and on fostering goodwill between athletes. That desire played a role earlier this week when a subcommittee, citing protocol, rejected a proposal to have U.S. athletes carry a tattered flag recovered from the World Trade Center site in tonight's parade of nations.

But the IOC was unprepared for the controversy unleashed with its decision and quickly compromised. Tonight, the flag will be carried into Rice-Eccles Stadium before the parade and held during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Efraim Zinger, director general of Israel's National Olympic Committee, said that, despite the nearly 30 years separating the Munich murders and the Sept. 11 attacks, there is much in common.

"It's a chain in this series of never-ending terrorist events that started in 1972," Zinger said. "Our feeling is the Olympic movement should acknowledge its family members."

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said the IOC has an obligation to honor the Munich dead because it occurred at the Games.

"When something occurs on your turf, when something violates the Olympic spirit, something that was one of the most atrocious examples of terrorism until 9/11, then it becomes the responsibility of the IOC to do something," he said. "The IOC has an unpaid bill that they should pay . . . and that is memorializing something that is part of the history of the Olympics."

But Toni Khoury of Lebanon, an IOC executive board member, said a moment of silence to honor the slain Israelis at the ceremony would be an unwelcome political intrusion.

"Believe me, like all human beings I was--I am--sick about the deaths of all the [Israeli] athletes. In my opinion, with all due respect . . . for the opening ceremony, and the Olympic Games, it is best not to interfere politically."

Observers say the IOC is struggling to recognize the complexities of the tragedy. Killed were Moshe Weinberg, Yoseph Romano, David Berger, Eliezer Halfin, Yaacov Shpringer, Zeev Freedman, Yoseph Gutfreund, Kehat Shor, Mark Slavin, Andre Spitzer and Amizur Shapira, in addition to five Palestinians and one German policeman.

Should the Israelis be memorialized to the exclusion of the others? There are also internal Olympic politics to navigate. While Israel has one IOC delegate, there are several from Arab states.

The day of the murders was marked by confusion and misinformation. Just before dawn on Sept. 5, 1972, eight Palestinians broke into the Israeli living quarters in the Olympic Village. Shots were fired and two Israelis were killed. The rest were taken hostage.

At first, IOC President Avery Brundage, an American, said the Games must go on. Then there was an about-face and the rest of the day's events were canceled.

The IOC executive board planned a memorial service for the dead--at that point, two Israelis--for the next morning. And a little later, IOC members were told that the rest of the hostages had been saved and the terrorists had been killed or captured.

It wasn't until the next morning that they learned all were dead.

The confidential minutes show the IOC debated the following dilemma: To halt the Games, it was felt by some, would be giving in to terrorists. To continue, as others pointed out, smacked of arrogance and insensitivity to the dead.

At the memorial service held the morning of Sept. 6, the world's flags hung at half-staff, except for those of 10 Arab nations, which had insisted the night before that their flags be raised high.

During the service, Brundage memorably declared, "The Games must go on," although many disagreed and felt that comment insensitive.

The 11 dead are now recalled in monuments and plaques at various sites around the world. None has been dedicated at the IOC's instigation. Israel's Olympic committee donated to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, a miniature replica of a statue in Tel Aviv that was dedicated to the 11 who died.

Since the 1976 Montreal Games, however, relatives of the slain Israelis and others have been lobbying the IOC to formally honor the dead. The IOC has grappled with how to handle any references to Munich.

Two years ago, when an Oscar-winning documentary about the killings, "One Day in September," was to have its premiere in Lausanne, the IOC's headquarters, there were questions about whether the premiere should be held at the Olympic Museum.

Then-President Juan Antonio Samaranch told the IOC to be "very careful" about "becoming associated with a film that might be offensive to some countries and was against doing so if it might lead to political problems," according to the minutes.

Before the 2000 Sydney Games, Samaranch told the executive board that he was being asked by the Israeli National Olympic Committee to find a way during the Games to commemorate the dead.

During a series of meetings held that year, opposition was raised.

An IOC staffer said the committee had received "threatening letters on this question from six or seven different Arab national Olympic committees," according to the minutes. The vice president of the Palestinian National Olympic Committee, Rabie Al Turk, said: "If [the Israelis] are going to have a plaque in a prominent place, then I want a plaque. If they ask for a minute of silence, I ask for one."

He also said that if the Israelis wanted to recall their victims, Palestinians would show victims of young Arabs killed by Israelis. "I have lots of victims."

Referring to Al Turk's remarks, Rogge told the board in July that while the Munich murders were "tragic," if the IOC "were to do anything, it would cause a great uproar." He said he would hold "quiet talks" with the Israelis to 'try to explain the difficult situation faced by the IOC," according to the minutes.

The issue arose again Sept. 14, 2000, the day before the Sydney Games opened. Samaranch said he "had nothing against mentioning the killings again but believed that if he were to do so, it would provoke outrage amongst the Arab countries."

Samaranch added, "The occurrence had happened in 1972; it was now 2000." Perhaps he could "make a general comment without specifically referring to Munich."

Rogge "totally agreed." The minutes note his explanation: "With all due respect to the fallen athletes, he believed that the IOC had to avoid any potential problems."

Others though, feel an obligation to memorialize the Israelis slain in Munich. "I see it as my duty to try and convince the IOC to find a way to commemorate the Munich tragedy," Israel's IOC member, Alex Gilady, said in a recent interview. "I do understand, however, the complexity of the situation. And as I took an oath to accept the decisions of the IOC, I do so hoping that one day I will manage to convince them."'

For Berger and others, the IOC efforts to honor the deaths have not gone far enough. The Sept. 6, 1972, memorial was scheduled when only two of the 11 had been killed, and it served as the bridge to the resumption of the Games. The 1996 speech also included a reference to the woman killed when a bomb when off in Atlanta's Centennial Park, and the comments made by Rogge earlier this week were to IOC members and invited guests only.

Berger said it is not asking too much to have a moment set aside in time to recall only the murders.

"The only reason things are different this year as opposed to last year is that the terrorism that has occurred is our terrorism, on American soil, against American citizens. All of a sudden, the whole country becomes aware there are terrorists out there. I've been dealing with this for 30 years."

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