This year marks the 40th anniversary of the darkest day in Olympic history. On Sept. 5, 1972, during the Munich Olympics, eight Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic village: two Israelis were shot and killed, and nine others were taken hostage. The militants demanded that 200 Arab inmates held in Israeli prisons be released; the Israeli government refused to negotiate, and a tense 20-hour, televised standoff captivated the globe.
The terrorists demanded that the Germans supply them with an airplane they could take to Egypt. The West German government agreed, then tried to rescue the hostages at the airport; all nine Israeli athletes and coaches, five Palestinians, and a German police officer died in the ensuing battle. “They’re all gone,” ABC broadcaster Jim McKay told shocked viewers.
To commemorate the anniversary of the event, the Israeli government has asked the International Olympic Committee to call for a minute of silence at this summer’s London Olympics; such a moment would make sense at the opening ceremonies. The IOC has refused, causing a diplomatic dust-up that could be cured with a little common sense. The Munich victims, and their families, deserve that moment.
In a letter to Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon (who petitioned for the minute of silence on behalf of two widows of the victims), IOC president Jacques Rogge said that the IOC “strongly sympathize[s] with the victims’ families and understand their lasting pain.” He added: “What happened in Munich in 1972 strengthened the determination of the Olympic movement to contribute more than ever to building a peaceful and better world by educating young people through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit.” IOC spokesman Andrew Mitchell told CNN that the coaches and athletes were honored at the Munich games — some 80,000 people attended a memorial service at the Olympic stadium — and on the 25th and 30th anniversaries of the killings, when Rogge attended memorials. “The victims are honored on a regular basis by the IOC and the Olympic movement, for instance, on the occasion of IOC sessions,” Mitchell says.
But the world isn’t watching such meetings. Why not pay tribute to the victims at the Olympic Games themselves? If the Munich tragedy, as Rogge writes, spurred the Olympic movement to build “a peaceful and better world,” shouldn’t that crucial moment be remembered? Rather than airbrush the tragedy away on its 40th anniversary, the IOC could truly do its part in “educating young people” by giving parents a chance to explain history, and the world’s geopolitical realities, to their children while watching the opening ceremonies.
Plus, it just feels like the right thing to do. A moment of silence wouldn’t be politicizing the Games. Rather, it would be remembering a human tragedy. Everyone standing in that stadium, no matter which country they represent, no matter their views on Middle East policy, would hopefully remember it as such.
Moments of silence are part of the world’s sporting culture. Such a commemoration for the ’72 event would be far from surprising. The IOC’s refusal to do so, on the other hand, is.