SI Vault
 
Never Forgotten
L. JON WERTHEIM
August 06, 2012
Four decades after the massacre by Black September, Israel's Olympians are competing passionately despite their continuing isolation on the athletic stage and the IOC's reluctance to acknowledge the darkest day in the history of the Games
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 06, 2012

Never Forgotten

Four decades after the massacre by Black September, Israel's Olympians are competing passionately despite their continuing isolation on the athletic stage and the IOC's reluctance to acknowledge the darkest day in the history of the Games

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3 4

In the spring, Spitzer got an audience with Rogge, a Belgian who competed at the 1972 Games in yachting. Spitzer, Dutch by birth, spoke with Rogge in Flemish. She says that at first Rogge told her that a memorial wasn't part of the protocol. Spitzer pointed out that at the Salt Lake Games in 2002 there was a moment to acknowledge the victims of 9/11. "I can only conclude you're not willing to do this because they were Israeli," Spitzer told the IOC president.

According to Spitzer, Rogge finally said, "There are now more than 40 Arab delegations. It's a difficult decision, but my hands are tied." (Rogge did not respond to SI's request for comment.)

Spitzer, irrepressible at age 66, was ready with a quick response: "Your hands are tied? No. My husband and his teammates' hands were tied. So were their feet. To the furniture. Then they came home in coffins."

THE MUNICH Games were the first Olympics held in post-Nazi Germany, and they were marketed with a theme of ease and openness, a counter to old images of Teutonic rigidity and Hitlerian fascism. They were even nicknamed the Carefree Games. The security budget was reportedly $2 million (roughly $10 million in 2012 currency). Fans without tickets could sneak into many events. Athletes who forgot their I.D.'s could hurdle the fence into the Olympic Village. Then, of course, the Games were hijacked—literally and figuratively.

As the 7,000 Olympic athletes slept in the early morning of Sept. 5, 1972, eight Palestinians representing the terrorist group Black September killed an Israeli coach and an athlete, took nine other Israelis hostage and then killed them too during a badly botched rescue attempt by German security forces. That horrific night the world saw just how perilous it could be for Israeli athletes to take part in international competition. The world witnessed another ugly display on Sept. 6. After Munich organizers declared that the Games must go on—Jim Murray, the great Los Angeles Times columnist, likened that to "having a dance at Dachau"—they held a memorial service that drew a crowd of 80,000 to the Olympic Stadium. There, 10 Arab countries refused to lower their flags to honor the murdered athletes.

Israel, established in 1948, was just 24 years old at the time, barely emerging from adolescence. Today the country is much older and much changed, but the Munich massacre still resonates. In the center of a park off Tel Aviv's Weizman Street sits a bronze statue of two figures, one physically attacking the other, titled War Between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The space around it is ringed by stones inscribed with the names of the Israeli athletes and coaches murdered in 1972. Shortly before leaving for the London Games, the Israeli delegation gathered at the statue for a ceremony. "This wasn't just an attack on Israel; it was an attack on the Olympic movement," says Efraim Zinger, secretary general of the Olympic Committee of Israel. "Something like this cannot happen again. You know what they say about what happens when you don't know your past."

The vigil at the park was part of a unique Olympic orientation for the Israeli delegation. Like athletes from all countries, Israel's are given a pro forma pep talk, reminding them that they are representing an entire country and encouraging them to compete with honor and test their physical limits. Then they get a sobering (if familiar) primer on the differences between their experience and that of, say, LeBron James or Usain Bolt. Don't wear your Israeli warmups in public. Avoid speaking Hebrew in public. If possible, avoid buses. Don't go off on your own. When assigned a hotel room, be sure it's not near a stairwell, lest you provide an easy escape for a possible attacker.

Another legacy of Munich: that $2 million Olympic security budget has grown astronomically. London's might exceed $2 billion. And that doesn't include the special Israeli security forces that accompanied the delegation to Britain. Such extra vigilance, says Ram, is "a way of life."

The delegation has a similar what-can-you-do take on the refusal of some Arab athletes to compete against Israelis. In the 2004 Athens Games, Iranian world judo champion Arash Miresmaeili, the favorite to win gold, failed to make weight after learning he would face Israel's Ehud Vaks. He told Iran's official news agency that he refused to face Vaks because of "sympathy with the oppressed people of Palestine," and an Iranian Olympic Committee spokesman told Reuters that Miresmaeili was instructed not to fight because of a government policy of not competing "against athletes of the Zionist regime." Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the time the mayor of Tehran and now Iran's president, said that Miresmaeili "earned eternal honor by his refusal." The judoka was awarded $125,000 by the government, the same amount he would have received had he won the gold medal.

At the Beijing Games, Iranian swimmer Mohammad Alirezaei withdrew from a 100-meter breaststroke heat, citing stomach pains. He had been slated to swim alongside an Israeli. Days later Syrian swimmer Bayan Jumah was scheduled to swim next to an Israeli in a 50-meter freestyle heat, and she withdrew without giving a reason.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4