Amid Olympics glee, Israeli 'Munich Massacre' families request moment for grief

Families of the 11 Israelis killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics are campaigning for a moment of silence at the opening ceremony, but Olympics organizers have so far refused.

Toby Melville/Reuters
President of the International Olympic Commission, Jacques Rogge, signs his name on a Truce Wall as he tours the Olympic Park in Stratford in east London on July 23. The International Olympic Committee paid a surprise tribute to the 11 Israeli team members who were killed at the 1972 Munich Games on Monday, marking the event for the first time in an Olympic village.

The run-up to each Olympic Games is a time of anticipation and excitement for athletes, organizers, and fans worldwide. But for families of the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches slain 40 years ago at the Munich Games by an arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization, it is also a period of struggle and grief. 

The families have worked for more than 35 years to commemorate the former Olympians at the Games, and this year, the 40th anniversary of the so-called Munich Massacre, their calls for a moment of silence at the opening ceremony have finally gained considerable support. Yesterday Jewish legislators from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, and other countries wrote International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge, urging a "moment of mercy" for the slain athletes at the opening ceremony. Even President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have backed the call. 

However, Mr. Rogge has stuck to his insistence that such a moment is not appropriate for the opening of the Games. "We feel the opening ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident," he said at a recent press conference.

In what may have been a response to the mounting pressure on his organization, Rogge led an impromptu moment of silence yesterday in front of about 100 people in the athlete's village and paid tribute to the slain Olympians. But the families angrily dismissed the gesture as a "fig leaf" so that the IOC could avoid the larger commemoration and are vowing to continue their battle with the IOC.  

Ankie Spitzer, the widow of slain Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer, says that thanks to the petition and resolutions calling for a moment of silence from legislatures worldwide, the Israeli families feel they have made progress in their fight for a commemoration they say is necessary to accord a measure of closure for their grief. 

But in the poisoned atmosphere of Palestinian-Israeli relations, the Israeli request is seen by Palestinians as a political stunt. Leading Palestinian politicians oppose the moment of silence, viewing it as a ploy to cast Israel as the victim in the conflict and to distract attention from Israeli practices today, including the military occupation of the West Bank.

''They want to remind the world of what happened a long time ago, to show they were suffering, so that the world will focus on other issues and that they will not be seen as the aggressive side," says Hasan Khreisheh, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "But the world knows they are the ones carrying out aggression against our people and our land."

The politics in sports

Since the 1972 Games, Israel's National Olympics committee has hosted memorials at most of the Games. IOC officials have attended the events, but until this week sponsored no memorials of their own, despite requests over the years from Ms. Spitzer and other relatives of the killed athletes. Israel's National Olympic Committee will hold a memorial event on Aug. 6 at London's Guildhall and Rogge plans to attend, according to IOC spokesperson Sandrine Tonge.

In a letter to Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in May, in response to his request for the moment of silence, Rogge wrote, "Please rest assured that within the Olympic family, the memory of the victims of the terrible massacre in Munich in 1972 will never fade away."

In practical terms, the letter amounted to a turning down of the request for a moment of silence.

''It is very hard for me that the IOC is not willing to mention what happened and not remind the athletes coming from all over the world of what took place historically. Those who died were sons of the Olympic movement, killed on Olympic ground. This means simply that the IOC does not condemn the terrorism,'' says Ilana Romano, whose weightlifter husband Yossi was one of those killed, in an interview in her Tel Aviv apartment. She and Spitzer are now in London to make a final push for the moment of silence before the opening ceremony this week. They have been unsuccessfully pressing the IOC for this since 1976.

Ms. Romano believes the real reason for the IOC's refusal is that it is worried about the response of the 46 Arab and Muslim delegations at the games. When asked about this, the IOC did not respond directly, but said in an e-mail that in keeping with past practice ''it is felt that the event at the Guildhall is the most appropriate way to pay tribute to the athletes during the games in London.''

Barring an official moment of silence, Romano asks that those in the stadium who are sympathetic to her request stand when the Games are opened so that "Rogge sees he made a mistake and so that the memories will be honored."

The petition has substantial support: Organizers initially set a goal of 80,011 signatories – one for each seat in the London stadium plus one for each of the slain Israeli Olympians. As of today, 104,628 people had signed. It was posted online in late April.

''Considering it is 40 years later, I'm overwhelmed with the response,'' Spitzer says. ''People from all over the world are signing.''

Keeping a promise

The countdown to the Games is an especially painful time for families of the victims.

Yossi Romano, the weightlifter, was one of those killed in the Olympic Village by members of Black September, a wing of then-PLO leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah group. Ms. Romano recalls that when the knock came on her door after the hostage taking 40 years ago, she thought it would bring news of when Yossi was coming home. But Palestinian militants, who demanded the release of 234 prisoners held by Israel, had brutally killed Yossi. 

''I am having flashbacks to that awful day. I see the blood that was spilled and it is hard," she says.

''The day of the funeral I came home with the three girls,'' the grandmother of eight recalls, referring to her daughters. ''Their lips trembled and they were afraid to cry. I told them it's alright to cry. They asked me, 'Will we ever see daddy again?' I said no.''

''I promised them that we would remember, and that we would remind the world who Yossi was. That promise of forty years ago still stands.''

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