a minute of silence for Munich at the Olympics

What do the rings stand for?

in 1972, 11 Israeli atheletes were murdered by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September during the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Amkie Spitzer, the wife of one of the murdered athletes, began a petition at Change.org asking for a minute of silence at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics to honor the 40th anniversary of that massacre:

Silence is a fitting tribute for athletes who lost their lives on the Olympic stage. Silence contains no statements, assumptions or beliefs and requires no understanding of language to interpret.

I have no political or religious agenda. Just the hope that my husband and the other men who went to the Olympics in peace, friendship and sportsmanship are given what they deserve. One minute of silence will clearly say to the world that what happened in 1972 can never happen again. Please do not let history repeat itself.

Mrs. Spitzer also said in a telephone interview that she was mindful of the political sensitivity such a moment of silence would require:

That Israel is a lightning rod for enmity in parts of the world obviously complicates the situation. That is why Ankie Spitzer, who has spent four decades as a leader in the effort for a memorial moment during an opening ceremony, is willing to strip such a moment of all religious and nationalistic references.

“You don’t even have to say they were Jews or Israelis,” Spitzer said during a recent telephone interview. “Just tell the world that in 1972, 11 members of the Olympic family, athletes and coaches, were killed.”

However, the request was ultimately denied by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge, who said that “his hands were tied”:

The I.O.C. plans to formally commemorate the Munich attack on Sept. 5, the day it happened in 1972, with a ceremony at the airfield in Munich where nine Israelis were killed in a failed hostage rescue attempt.

Rogge staged an impromptu remembrance of the slain Munich athletes on Monday, by saying some words during a ceremony at the Athletes Village. But the I.O.C. maintains its stance that a remembrance will not be part of Friday’s opening ceremony.

“We feel that the opening ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident,” Rogge said at a news conference last week, according to Reuters.

This is a tough issue if that’s the extent of the story. Since the IOC does plan on observing the Munich massacre formally, and Rogge himself also already observed a minute of silence, it does seem that the basic spirit of the petition is fulfilled.

However, Mrs. Spitzer alleges that the actual reason for the refusal was a fear of a boycott of the Games by the Arab and Muslim-majority nations (usually represented by the Organization of the Islamic Conference or OIC, not to be confused with the IOC).

It’s important to note that (as far as I am aware) neither the IOC nor the OIC have mentioned any threat of boycott of the Games. The only source alleging this is Mrs. Spitzer. But if it is true, then it turns the decision not to observe a minute of silence from one of propriety to one of brazen cowardice.

It must be stated plainly: if the OIC or any other group of nations (or single nation) were to ever threaten to boycott the games for any reason, there is only one response: GO. In fact there have been numerous boycotts of the Olympic Games by various nations, including the USSR (in 1984, Los Angeles), China (1956, Melbourne), and even the United States (1980, Moscow). Even Lichtenstein, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden got in the act (1956). And yet, the Games endured and thrived. The Olympics are one of the few truly international and global achievements that are positive (as per Neil deGrasse Tyson’s tweet) and should genuinely seek to rise above the usual tangle of global geopolitics. That’s impossible in practice, but it is an ideal that the IOC should strive for.

The refusal to observe a moment of silence during the Opening Ceremony would undermine that ideal of unity – rather than celebrate the coming together of nations, at the pinnacle of the symbolism of unity, it would have instead elevated a moment when they stood apart. It is right that the IOC observe the anniversary in September and arguably there should be another observance during the actual Games themselves, perhaps at the Olympic Village for the benefit of the athletes.

However, doing so for the wrong reasons (appeasement of any single nation or groups of nations) would be a violation of the spirit of the games itself. No one nation or nations have the right to demand that the Olympics serve to validate their political sensibilities. Either compete in the spirit of the games as equals, or stay home.