An Olympic tragedy

The IOC will not properly commemorate the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes 40 years ago

July 26, 2012|By Rob Levine

In September 1972, the world watched in disbelief as 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by the Palestinian terrorist organization "Black September" at the Summer Olympic Games in Munich. The story, and Israel's decade-long retaliation, have been captured in countless movies, books and miniseries.

Germany had planned to show a new face to the world. The 1972 games were to be the antithesis of Hitler's Olympics. They were informally called "The Carefree Games." As a result, security was decidedly lax. On Sept. 4, with the aid of unwitting Canadian athletes, the terrorists scaled the fence of the Olympic Village and raided the Israeli compound. Over the course of the next 36 hours, Black September held the world's attention, demanding the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners. They attempted to flee to Egypt with their hostages. An unprepared German security force botched rescue efforts at several junctures, and ultimately 11 athletes and trainers perished at the hands of the terrorists.

The games went on at the insistence of the International Olympic Committee leader, Avery Brundage, a decision that, while generally supported at the time, ultimately marred his legacy. Many athletes opted out in solidarity. Mark Spitz, who had already competed in all of his events, left prior to the closing ceremony. A brief memorial service was held before a soccer match between Hungary and West Germany, in which Brundage spoke passionately about the integrity of the games and made little reference to the murdered Israelis. In addition, participating countries were invited, but not required, to fly their stadium flag at half staff.

This was the last time that the IOC commemorated the loss at an Olympic Games.

As a child, I attended Camp Laurelwood, a Jewish overnight camp in Connecticut. At the conclusion of each session, campers competed in the Laurelwood Olympics. These generally started with a surprise Olympic "break" — only the senior staff knew when the games would start. This included announcements in fortune cookies, a mock tornado warning, and one of the most memorable breaks, a skydiver parachuting onto the athletic fields.

Campers and counselors would file to the Rec Hall for the excitement of the opening ceremony. There was much anticipation heading into that building. Teams would be assigned. Captains and generals would be announced. The previous four weeks had led us all to this. We could not wait for the games to begin.

But we did wait. Just as Jews have done through the ages, we took a moment to remember those who came before us. We fulfilled our duty.

Jimmy Wolf, our revered camp director (and basketball coach for the 1989 Maccabiah Games), led us in a brief memorial service for the 11 Israelis murdered in Munich. With compassion, he recounted the tragedy of those two horrific September days in a manner that was appropriate to the youngest camper and oldest staff member.

He then called on 11 honored campers to come on stage to light a candle in memory of each athlete. To this day, I can recall the first time I heard the story and the names, which seemed so distant and far off to a young American.

David Berger. Yossef Gutfreund. Moshe Weinberg. Eliezer Halfin. Mark Slavin. Yossef Romano. Kehat Shorr. Andre Spitzer. Amitzur Shapira. Yakov Springer. Ze'ev Friedman.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, the mood quickly shifted from somber to festive. The Laurelwood Olympics moved forward and for four days, the camp took on the tempo of a bustling Olympic Village. Yet, we went about our competition with context and purpose. As Jews, we would always be subject to challenges. The Holocaust, the Raid on Entebbe, the Munich Massacre and other horrific events would underscore the gravity of our religious identity for the rest of our lives.

I spoke with a friend who now has children at Laurelwood, and she confirmed that the tradition still holds.

On Friday evening, the world will watch as the Olympic Games open in London. It has been 40 years since the tragedy of Munich. The events of 1972 have not been mentioned in a single sanctioned Olympic event. Informal observances were held in Montreal in 1976, Los Angeles in 1984 and Atlanta in 1996; however, a moment for the 11 athletes and trainers was never officially observed during the Games themselves.

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