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Human Rights

Olympic Shame


Forty years ago in September, a villainous act of terrorism cut short the lives of 11 Israeli athletes and 1 West German police officer. The terrorists, 8 members of the Black September splinter faction from within the Palestinian Liberation Organization, penetrated the Olympic Village in Munich with duffel bags full of firearms and grenades and took hostage nine Israelis hostage after killing two of them during the initial confrontation.

They were inadvertently assisted in this by the lax security measures which were a deliberate choice of the West German government to promote an open and friendly image to the world[1]. General security was inadequate: but even the specific security concerns of the Israeli delegation were ignored. No special security was provided for them despite the obvious threat; and the Israeli delegation was housed on the edge of the village, making the infiltration even easier.

The West Germans bungled the rescue attempt at the airport and during the ensuing firefight, the terrorists executed the remaining hostages, then blew up the helicopters they were in, incinerating the bodies almost beyond recognition.  West German snipers took down 5 of the Black September murderers, another three were captured, two of them with injuries.

On October 29th, 1972 – just seven weeks after the massacre – two Black September terrorists boarded Lufthansa flight 615 from Beirut to Frankfurt and demanded the release of the three captured members of the Munich group. Chancellor Willy Brandt acquiesced without consulting or even informing the Israeli government[2]. All three terrorists were flown to Zagreb and from there to Tripoli in Libya, where they received a heroes’ welcome and the accolades of almost the entire Arab world.

Forty Years On

Since the 1972 massacre, there have been repeated efforts to have the Olympic Committee include an official moment of silence to commemorate those fallen during the attack. All requests have been refused.

In the run up to the 2012 games, there were again strenuous efforts to include a minute of silence during the Opening Ceremony. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton voiced their support for such a tribute: the Secretary of State went so far as to send the IOC President Jacques Rogge an official letter requesting an “appropriate memorial event” in London[3]. This was in addition to the petition by the families of the Israelis killed in 1972.

“We want the International Olympic Committee … with all 10,000 young athletes in front of them, to say, ‘Let us not forget what happened in Munich’. (We want this) only for one reason, so it will never happen again,” said Ankie Spitzer, widow of one of the murdered athletes.

Mr. Rogge and the Committee have refused. The official position is that the IOC condemns the massacre and will attend commemorative events planned by others. Unofficially, the IOC doesn’t want to offend the Arab states, which might boycott the games if a commemoration of the Israeli Jewish victims were to become an official part of the Olympic program.[4]

This is shameful. Any state that condones the massacre, or expresses outrage over an official commemoration for the victims should not only be allowed to boycott the Games, they should be expelled from the Games until an official retraction and apology is received by the victim’s families and the IOC. If that means that no Arab states participate in the Olympics, so be it. There is no room in the Olympics or the international community for states that openly support terrorism.

There is not the slightest doubt that if the victims had been 11 German Protestants, or 11 Italian Catholics, or 11 of anything except Israeli Jews, there would today be a permanent monument to them and a moment of silence during every opening ceremony. The Olympic Committee’s stance is both despicable and unacceptable.

One final observation:  I want to pay tribute to the late King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan. He was the only Arab leader to publically denounce the Olympic attack, calling it a “savage crime against civilization…perpetrated by sick minds.” At the time, the Kingdom of Jordan had a very large Palestinian refugee population – larger than the native Jordanian Hashemite population – and tensions within the Kingdom were very high. In fact, the Jordanians and the Palestinian refugees had fought a brief but bloody civil war in 1970. This act of human decency took great courage and marked King Hussein for what he was: one of the few great Arab statesmen of the period.

It is right to honor his memory, for it reminds us that the conflict need not degenerate to the primitive savagery of Arab vs. Israeli or Moslem vs. Jew. There is hope for the future of the region if the leaders there can only transcend the pettiness of tribalism and sectarian hatreds, as King Hussein did. If only the Olympic Committee could learn the same lesson and set the example.



In memory of the victims of terrorism:

Sources and Notes:

[1] Remember that the previous Olympic Games held in Germany were the 1936 Berlin Games, inextricably associated with the Third Reich and German militarism. The West Germans understandably wanted a definitive break with that past.
[2] There are allegations that the entire hijacking was staged between the PLO and West German government in order to give the Germans a face-saving means of releasing the embarrassing hostages and guaranteeing no more Black September attacks against West Germany or Germans abroad.
[3] “Hilary Clinton urges Olympic committee to commemorate Munich massacre,” Associated Press, 25 July 2012
[4] Lewis, Ori, “Munich widow slams IOC, Rogge over no moment of silence” Reuters, 06 August 2012

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